When an overwhelming majority of Floridians voted in November to restore voting rights for as many as 1.4 million felons, liberals and conservatives alike celebrated the largest expansion of voting eligibility in the country since the elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests in the 1960s.
The bipartisan cheering waned this month when Republican state lawmakers proposed limiting the scope of what is known in Florida as Amendment 4 — and Democrats lashed out with accusations of voter suppression.
Republicans said they want only to guide implementation of a sparsely worded amendment and are committed to following the intent of the voters who approved it. Their critics said the GOP is trying to go far beyond that. Although the legislation is not final, the episode has revealed how complicated and increasingly polarized the issue of voting law has become — and how likely it is to remain that way through the 2020 election.
“I want us to send an unapologetic message to the legislature, and that is to get their hands off Amendment 4,” Democrat Andrew Gillum, who lost the governor’s race in Florida last year and has launched a voter-registration drive ahead of 2020, told a cheering crowd in Miami Gardens this month. “It is the law of the land. It is enshrined in the Florida Constitution.”
Proponents have championed Amendment 4 as a civil rights issue akin to sentencing reform — good for reducing recidivism rates and necessary to lift the disproportionate impact of Florida’s voting restrictions on African Americans. The proposed legislation to limit the amendment has given Democrats an additional rallying cry: that Republicans are trying to dilute the electoral power that could come from the measure.
The episode has attracted fiery rhetoric from national figures, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who in a tweet last week likened Republican actions to a poll tax.
Amendment 4 restores the voting rights of felons upon completion of all terms of their sentence, including parole and probation. It excludes those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses. The amendment took effect on Jan. 8, and although it is not possible to track voter registration among felons, a spike in registration followed.
But Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, said the amendment required implementing legislation. In particular, GOP leaders said three terms in the amendment — completion, murder and sexual offense — needed to be defined for clarity, so the state’s 67 county elections supervisors could administer the measure uniformly.
“I wholeheartedly believe voting rights should be restored,” said Byron Donalds, a Republican state representative from Naples who said he voted for Amendment 4 in November. “But we have to define it. It was crystal clear that nobody knew how to actually tell an offender that they have completed their sentence.”
What Republicans came up with prompted an uproar. One GOP proposal broadly defined sexual offense to include — in addition to violent crimes — video voyeurism, lewd exhibition, prostitution and locating an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school.
Amendment 4 advocates said the list should have been limited to those crimes that qualify criminals for the state’s sex offender registry. But James Grant, a Republican state representative from Tampa who wrote one of the legislative proposals, said that is not what Amendment 4 said.
“‘Felony sex offense’ means absolutely nothing in a legal context,” Grant said. He said likening his effort to a poll tax was the kind of “partisan tribal crap that’s crippling the country.” It is common in Florida, he said, to draft clarifying legislation after constitutional amendments are approved.
Lawmakers defined sentence completion to include prison time, probation, parole, fines, fees and restitution declared by a judge to be part of a sentence. More troubling for Amendment 4 advocates, though, was the inclusion of costs that have been converted by a judge to civil liens to allow poor defendants more time to pay. Under those rules, it could take years for an individual who has otherwise completed their sentence to be eligible to vote.
“What this does is it creates an additional sentence, which I don’t think the voters intended to do,” Shelli Freeland Eddie, a criminal defense attorney and city commissioner from Sarasota, told Florida senators in a public hearing Monday.
One woman at the hearing, Coral Nichols from Seminole, served nearly five years for grand theft and fraud and said she is close to completing 10 years of probation. She was also ordered to pay $190,000 in restitution, but the amount was converted to a civil lien long ago, and she pays according to her ability every month, she said.
Nichols said she might never be eligible to vote under the Senate proposal. “I’m a law-abiding citizen,” she said.
Karen Leicht, however, testified at the televised hearing Monday that she did not register on Jan. 8 for fear she is not eligible, given she is still paying restitution for her felony fraud conviction — a scenario Republicans said proved the need for clarifying legislation.
Amendment 4 advocates were grateful state House Republicans defined murder as only first-degree and second-degree offenses. But they were perplexed by a Senate proposal that also includes attempted first- or second-degree murder, as well as other charges including the killing of an unborn child by injuring the mother.
“Everyone who has watched ‘Law and Order’ understands that murder is an unlawful killing that involves a killing,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior attorney with the ACLU.
Most states curtail felons from voting in some way. Until Amendment 4 passed, Florida’s lifetime voting ban for all felons was the most restrictive such law in the country.
The measure to change that gained the support of a broad coalition of conservatives and liberals including the ACLU, the Koch network, voting groups and Christian conservatives. In a year when races for governor and U.S. Senate were decided with razor-thin margins, the amendment’s winning vote of nearly 65 percent set it apart in a perennially divided state.
“At the end of the day, we want to reduce barriers for as many people as possible and create more opportunity for all Floridians to be productive members of society,” Andres Malave, a spokesman with the Koch-related Americans for Prosperity, said at the time.
The evidence is mixed on which party will benefit more from Amendment 4.
According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, as many as one-third of newly eligible felons in Florida are African American, a demographic group that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. But Republicans cited studies showing that overall, Florida felons come from all demographic groups. In addition, virtually everyone agrees it will be difficult to register and turn out this population in large numbers for elections.
Still, even a fraction of the number of potentially eligible felons could sway an election in a swing state where elections are often decided by slender margins. President Trump, for instance, won Florida over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a margin of about 113,000 out of 9.4 million votes cast. Last year, DeSantis’s margin over Gillum was about 32,000, and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) defeated incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson by 10,000 votes.
DeSantis and Scott opposed Amendment 4. DeSantis has said nothing publicly since lawmakers began debating implementing legislation; a spokeswoman said legislation is needed to “provide clarity and structure.”
Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator from St. Petersburg, said in an interview last week he expects a bipartisan solution to emerge that will “try to soften some of the language.”
Brandes and other Republicans agreed to start that process Monday, narrowing their original definition of murder and reducing the list of sex offenses to track with the state’s sex offender registry. Brandes said more changes are possible in the coming weeks.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.