A constitutional amendment took effect, Tuesday, that automatically restores the voting rights of some 1.4 million Florida residents with past felony convictions.
While many ex-felons are celebrating by registering to vote at their county supervisor of elections offices, how the administration of newly-sworn in Governor Ron DeSantis will respond, remains to be seen.
Amendment Four automatically restores the voting rights of former felons, or ‘returning citizens’ as they prefer to be called, who have completed all terms of their sentence and who were not convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. The amendment overturns an 1868 Florida law that banned residents with felony convictions from automatically having their voting rights restored once their sentences are complete.
Fort Myers resident Neil Volz is political director of the bipartisan Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which worked to get the amendment on the ballot. 13 years ago, Volz pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy related to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in Washington D.C. That is ultimately when the story of his involvement in the amendment four movement began.
“I made some stupid decisions and crossed some lines I shouldn’t have crossed and ultimately I had to live with the consequences of those decisions which involved losing my job, losing my house and getting divorced and starting life over,” said Volz.
Volz is now one of the many former felons who can now register to vote in Florida.
“This morning I went down to the supervisor of elections office and registered to vote and was there with family, with friends, with fellow returning citizens; those of us with past felony convictions and we celebrated,” said Volz. “It was a really overwhelmingly emotional experience and one that I’ll never forget.”
Volz spoke with Lee County Election Supervisor Tommy Doyle a couple weeks before going to register to make sure the process would go smoothly. Collier County Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards said it was business as usual at her office as well.
“We accept the voter registration application form, or the registrant can actually register online in Florida now, and that information goes to the Florida Division of Elections and then they do the research and they notify us on the action to take,” said Edwards.
“We just send the new voter a voter registration information card. We do not ask questions when someone comes in to register to vote so only if they registrant made a comment would we even know that they may have been a felon.”
Whether these new registrations will stay on the voter rolls, however, is still be up in the air. Newly sworn-in Gov. DeSantis says the restoration of voting rights should wait until state lawmakers approve some implementation language. The legislature does not convene until March, but in some Florida counties municipal elections are scheduled for next month and state election officials have so far offered no guidance.
Edwards said the amendment came up at the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections Mid-Winter conference in Sarasota last month, which was also attended by Florida’s Secretary of State and the Director of the state Division of Elections.
“They told us that at that time they were unsure what the process would be and whether or not there would be any legislation passed to assist in implementing,” said Edwards.
“So we knew at that time, of course, that we would come home and on this date, Jan. 8, anyone that comes in to register to vote, we will accept their voter registration form.”
Recently retired Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Howard Simon disagrees with Gov. DeSantis’ assessment. Simon was among a committee of three people who drafted the amendment language. He said the amendment was written to be self-executing.
“We wrote this to get politicians out of the business of deciding who gets to vote and who doesn’t get to vote in Florida,” said Simon.
“So the constitutional language that the people supported overwhelmingly was that your disqualification from voting ends automatically upon the completion of all the terms of your sentence and your rights shall be restored. I don’t think there’s anything unclear about that language. State officials just have to get out of the way and respect the wishes of the voters.”
Amendment Four was endorsed by every Democratic candidate running for state-wide office in the last election and was largely opposed by Republicans like U.S. Senator Rick Scott, who dramatically restricted Florida’s executive clemency process during his time in the governor’s office.
But returning citizen and newly registered voter Neil Volz says it’s a mistake to assume that former felons will act as a homogenous voting block.
“Those of us with felony convictions; we weren’t allowed to be Republicans or Democrats,” said Volz.
“So the truth is this idea of people projecting onto us what we should or should not do is something that we don’t necessarily view as a positive thing. Our view is that we’ve worked too hard and too long to simply give our vote away to some partisan interest when the truth is partisan politics blocked the progress that ultimately the citizens themselves had to step up to fix.”
Even with the possibility of a legal battle ahead, Volz said the implementation of Amendment Four is an inspiration to those in other states fighting for similar changes.
“We are hearing from folks in Iowa and Virginia and Kentucky; the states that still haven’t made the changes we just made in November and it’s a real honor to be an encouragement to other folks who want to try and make the kind of changes that we just made as a state,” said Volz.
“So yeah, its reverberating all over the country.”