Should Florida Restore Voting Rights for Felons?

A topic of conversation all throughout the Sunshine State is Florida's Amendment 4, which would restore the right to vote for 1.5 million felons who completed their sentences, except convicted murderers and sex offenders. 

To pass, 60 percent of voters must vote "yes."

The Supporters

The amendment is on the ballot because of the effort by the non-profit Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which was primarily bankrolled by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Florida is one of 13 states that restrict voting rights after a felon has completed a prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole.  Nationwide, 6 million Americans can't vote as a result of felony convictions.

Supporters of Amendment 4 argue that while felons did the crimes, they also did their time, and re-enfranchisement will make good on what they say is a unique American tenet: a second chance.

In order to get a proposed amendment on the ballot, a petition must be signed by 766,200 voters, and the signatures must come from at least 14 of Florida's 27 congressional districts.  One point one million signatures were collected by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, led by Desmond Meade, who was convicted of drug crimes, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm.

In addition to their re-entry into the state, local, and national democratic process, advocates of the amendment have also touted their alleged economic benefits.

The right-leaning Coral Gables, Fla. Washington Economics Group recently estimated that since 2011, Florida has lost $2.7 billion from court costs, job loss, and recidivism due to felons' inability to vote.  Furthermore, nearly 4,000 Florida military veterans' voting rights will be restored if the amendment passes. 

Elsewhere throughout the country, some states are less restrictive than Florida.  In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote; in 14 states and the District of Columbia, restoration of the right to vote is automatic upon sentence completion; and in 21 states, felons cannot vote while incarcerated, nor, for a period of time, while on parole or probation.

The Opponents

In 1974, the United States Supreme Court ruled 6-3, in Richardson v. Ramirez, that barring felons from voting doeas not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  The court also left the "what to do?" to the individual states.  Richardson reversed the California Supreme Court.

A common talking point is that felons are permanently banned from voting in Florida; however, that's not exactly accurate.  A felon must wait five years after sentence completion before he can apply for a review at the state Office of Executive Clemency, which has limited resources and can take years to adjudicate a case.  So could it take a decade or so to regain voting rights, subject to approval by the aforementioned office?  Yes, and while it's certainly not automatic and may be much longer than a felon wants, it's not "permanent."  This policy was put into place seven years ago by current governor Rick Scott, who overturned a more lenient policy enacted by his predecessor, Charlie Crist.

The most visible and vocal statewide opponent to Amendment 4 is the non-profit Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, headed by Richard Harrison, a Tampa-based attorney.  (I found no information online about financiers and donors.)

Harrison's group argues that the amendment is too broad in its one-size-fits-all approach.  The amendment is bad policy, it argues, because it makes no distinction between one-time offenders and repeat felons, and it fails to consider the original crime and charges before any plea deals.

If the amendment fails, I believe that it will be because of the belief that felons will overwhelmingly vote Democrat (more on that later), and also because there is no lifetime voting rights disqualifier for felons who are again convicted of the same, or a different, felony crime.

The Politics of It All

In addition to no right to vote, Florida felons cannot legally own a firearm (this is national policy) and cannot serve on a jury. The amendment addresses only the right to vote; critics and skeptics have asked aloud why there has been only a push to restore voting rights and not a complementary push to restore the ability to serve on a jury.

Crist took credit for what he claimed were lower recidivism rates from 2007 to 2010 due to a quicker process to restore voting rights.  Before 2007, the recidivism rate in Florida was 33%.  Once Crist's policy took effect, two-year rates were 12.4%, and three-year rates were 26.3%.  Scott, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson for the latter's Senate seat, disputes that rates dropped due to a restoration of rights, citing Florida Clemency Board data that rates had been consistently decreasing. Scott has also said strict clemency guidelines have likely made Florida a safer and economically stronger state.

Though the adjective "nonviolent" isn't in the amendment's text, it's often used in its marketing and promotion.  What percentage of nonviolent felons committed violent crimes but were sentenced on lesser, less violent charges?  The answer in Florida is unclear, but with 1.5 million felons, and another 220,000 future felons, it's a reasonable assumption that at least some percentage committed violent crimes before plea deals.  For example, a felon serving a sentence for attempted murder isn't a murderer but is still violent and will be granted his voting rights if Amendment 4 passes.  This blurred line has been publicized by amendment opponents.

I suspect that most Florida Republicans and conservatives will vote "no."  Right-leaning independents (called NPAs: No Party Affiliation) are probably 50-50.  Conservatives are a law-and-order bunch, and many are certain that Florida's felons would overwhelmingly vote Democrat.  The data to back this up are inconsistent and outdated.  A 2002 study in The American Sociological Review hypothesized that felons would have voted Democrat 70 percent of the time; the study also estimated that seven out of 400 United States Senate races may have flipped from red to blue between 1970 and 1998.  Conclusions on whether felons would have tipped the 2000 presidential election to Bush or Gore are inconclusive.  It's also debatable if the majority of felons would even register to vote.

Felons will soon know if they'll be eligible to vote beginning in 2019.  Irrespective of the outcome, perhaps all Floridians can agree that the amendment's fate will be decided in the most democratic way: by the will of the people. 

Rich Logis is host of The Rich Logis Show, at TheRichLogisShow.com, and author of the upcoming book 10 Warning Signs Your Child Is Becoming a Democrat.  He can be found on Twitter at @RichLogis.

A topic of conversation all throughout the Sunshine State is Florida's Amendment 4, which would restore the right to vote for 1.5 million felons who completed their sentences, except convicted murderers and sex offenders. 

To pass, 60 percent of voters must vote "yes."

The Supporters

The amendment is on the ballot because of the effort by the non-profit Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which was primarily bankrolled by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Florida is one of 13 states that restrict voting rights after a felon has completed a prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole.  Nationwide, 6 million Americans can't vote as a result of felony convictions.

Supporters of Amendment 4 argue that while felons did the crimes, they also did their time, and re-enfranchisement will make good on what they say is a unique American tenet: a second chance.

In order to get a proposed amendment on the ballot, a petition must be signed by 766,200 voters, and the signatures must come from at least 14 of Florida's 27 congressional districts.  One point one million signatures were collected by Floridians for a Fair Democracy, led by Desmond Meade, who was convicted of drug crimes, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm.

In addition to their re-entry into the state, local, and national democratic process, advocates of the amendment have also touted their alleged economic benefits.

The right-leaning Coral Gables, Fla. Washington Economics Group recently estimated that since 2011, Florida has lost $2.7 billion from court costs, job loss, and recidivism due to felons' inability to vote.  Furthermore, nearly 4,000 Florida military veterans' voting rights will be restored if the amendment passes. 

Elsewhere throughout the country, some states are less restrictive than Florida.  In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote; in 14 states and the District of Columbia, restoration of the right to vote is automatic upon sentence completion; and in 21 states, felons cannot vote while incarcerated, nor, for a period of time, while on parole or probation.

The Opponents

In 1974, the United States Supreme Court ruled 6-3, in Richardson v. Ramirez, that barring felons from voting doeas not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  The court also left the "what to do?" to the individual states.  Richardson reversed the California Supreme Court.

A common talking point is that felons are permanently banned from voting in Florida; however, that's not exactly accurate.  A felon must wait five years after sentence completion before he can apply for a review at the state Office of Executive Clemency, which has limited resources and can take years to adjudicate a case.  So could it take a decade or so to regain voting rights, subject to approval by the aforementioned office?  Yes, and while it's certainly not automatic and may be much longer than a felon wants, it's not "permanent."  This policy was put into place seven years ago by current governor Rick Scott, who overturned a more lenient policy enacted by his predecessor, Charlie Crist.

The most visible and vocal statewide opponent to Amendment 4 is the non-profit Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy, headed by Richard Harrison, a Tampa-based attorney.  (I found no information online about financiers and donors.)

Harrison's group argues that the amendment is too broad in its one-size-fits-all approach.  The amendment is bad policy, it argues, because it makes no distinction between one-time offenders and repeat felons, and it fails to consider the original crime and charges before any plea deals.

If the amendment fails, I believe that it will be because of the belief that felons will overwhelmingly vote Democrat (more on that later), and also because there is no lifetime voting rights disqualifier for felons who are again convicted of the same, or a different, felony crime.

The Politics of It All

In addition to no right to vote, Florida felons cannot legally own a firearm (this is national policy) and cannot serve on a jury. The amendment addresses only the right to vote; critics and skeptics have asked aloud why there has been only a push to restore voting rights and not a complementary push to restore the ability to serve on a jury.

Crist took credit for what he claimed were lower recidivism rates from 2007 to 2010 due to a quicker process to restore voting rights.  Before 2007, the recidivism rate in Florida was 33%.  Once Crist's policy took effect, two-year rates were 12.4%, and three-year rates were 26.3%.  Scott, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson for the latter's Senate seat, disputes that rates dropped due to a restoration of rights, citing Florida Clemency Board data that rates had been consistently decreasing. Scott has also said strict clemency guidelines have likely made Florida a safer and economically stronger state.

Though the adjective "nonviolent" isn't in the amendment's text, it's often used in its marketing and promotion.  What percentage of nonviolent felons committed violent crimes but were sentenced on lesser, less violent charges?  The answer in Florida is unclear, but with 1.5 million felons, and another 220,000 future felons, it's a reasonable assumption that at least some percentage committed violent crimes before plea deals.  For example, a felon serving a sentence for attempted murder isn't a murderer but is still violent and will be granted his voting rights if Amendment 4 passes.  This blurred line has been publicized by amendment opponents.

I suspect that most Florida Republicans and conservatives will vote "no."  Right-leaning independents (called NPAs: No Party Affiliation) are probably 50-50.  Conservatives are a law-and-order bunch, and many are certain that Florida's felons would overwhelmingly vote Democrat.  The data to back this up are inconsistent and outdated.  A 2002 study in The American Sociological Review hypothesized that felons would have voted Democrat 70 percent of the time; the study also estimated that seven out of 400 United States Senate races may have flipped from red to blue between 1970 and 1998.  Conclusions on whether felons would have tipped the 2000 presidential election to Bush or Gore are inconclusive.  It's also debatable if the majority of felons would even register to vote.

Felons will soon know if they'll be eligible to vote beginning in 2019.  Irrespective of the outcome, perhaps all Floridians can agree that the amendment's fate will be decided in the most democratic way: by the will of the people. 

Rich Logis is host of The Rich Logis Show, at TheRichLogisShow.com, and author of the upcoming book 10 Warning Signs Your Child Is Becoming a Democrat.  He can be found on Twitter at @RichLogis.