IN NOVEMBER, nearly two-thirds of Florida voters backed a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to roughly 1.4 million former felons — a measure that undid a feature of state law, enacted after the Civil War by racist white lawmakers, designed to disenfranchise African Americans. Now some Florida Republicans who opposed the ballot measure, written unambiguously to be self-executing, insist “clarifying” legislation is needed. That sounds like mischief intended to thwart the voters’ will and maintain a system under which at least 1 in 5 black Floridians faced a lifetime ban on voting.
Barring ex-convicts from the polls, even after they have served their sentences in full, was once a distinctly American phenomenon, meant to impede blacks from wielding electoral power; no other Western democracy has erected similar barriers. In few places was it as virulent or impactful as in Florida, where draconian laws for minor crimes, selectively enforced, ensnared African Americans and ensured they would never be able to cast a ballot. In 1940, just 3 percent of adult black Floridians were registered to vote. Today, a disproportionate share of disenfranchised former felons are African Americans.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who later switched parties, modified the voting ban so that many offenders’ petitions for rights restoration would be submitted automatically. His GOP successor, Rick Scott, now a senator, scrapped those reforms. In their place, he established an arbitrary, slow and cumbersome system under which the franchise was restored annually to just a few hundred whites and very few blacks — and only those who appeared in person to beg before a panel led by Mr. Scott. More than 10,000 applicants languished on a waiting list; a quarter of the nation’s approximately 6 million disenfranchised ex-convicts are in Florida.
A federal judge condemned the system as a sham. Against that backdrop of injustice, advocates managed to put Amendment 4 on last fall’s ballot, making ex-offenders (except murderers and sex offenders) automatically eligible to vote upon completion of their sentences, including parole and probation. They argued that a debt paid is a debt paid. On Election Day, about 65 percent of Floridians agreed. State elections officials began registering former felons last Tuesday.
The hemming and hawing from some of the measure’s GOP opponents commenced thereafter. They suggested the ballot language was unclear; it wasn’t. “There’s going to be a need of guidance for that,” said newly elected Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. (We asked his office to clarify but received no response.)
As a result of the Florida vote, only Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia retain rules that automatically impose a lifetime ban on voting by ex-convicts, barring executive action — and in Virginia, now-former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) restored voting rights to more than 170,000 people. But in Tallahassee, politicians may try to cling to remnants of the past when Florida’s legislature convenes in March.
Voting rights advocates are alert for land mines that may be laid by Mr. DeSantis or other Republicans, who, in a state with a notorious history of electoral squeakers, may fear the consequences should even a small fraction of those 1.4 million eligible former felons exercise their franchise.
Many former felons, having never voted, were thrilled to register. Their enthusiasm for democracy exceeds that of some GOP elected officials, in Florida and elsewhere.