1.4 Million Ex-Felons in Florida Are Getting Voting Rights Back. So What Comes Next?

December 1, 2018

By Steven Lemongello

ORLANDO, Fla. — On Jan. 8, David Ayala and thousands of former felons will be able to walk into their county elections office and do something they had been banned by law from doing before — register to vote.

“This moment is a lifetime moment for me,” said Ayala, husband of Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala whose first felony drug conviction came at age 16. “I lost the right to vote before I was even eligible to vote. … Now I’ll be able to vote for my wife in the next election.”

But as Amendment 4 supporters celebrate the restoration of voting rights to more than 1.4 million non-violent ex-felons in Florida, it’s still not known just how many will actually join Ayala and take that step.

And even among those who do register, the ultimate political effect of the huge new voting pool is just as unclear.

“People are going to be surprised that it’s not going to be as massive and not as Democratic as they thought it was going to be,” said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida, Petersburg and a member of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Before Amendment 4 passed on Nov. 6 with almost 65 percent of the vote, ex-felons had to appear before a four-person clemency board made up of the governor and the rest of the Cabinet.

While former Gov. Charlie Crist restored voting rights to more than 150,000 people in his four years in office, that number plummeted under Gov. Rick Scott to fewer than 2,000 a year, creating a huge backlog.

While the amendment states “any disqualification from voting … shall terminate” and “voting rights shall be restored,” some supporters are worried that the Legislature could try to place restrictions on implementation, as it did with medical marijuana.

“To be clear — no legislative or executive action is necessary to implement Amendment 4,” Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a memo after the referendum was successful.

“The language is so clear and unambiguously self-executing,” Simon said. “The whole point of it was to take politicians out of the decision of who gets to vote in Florida and who does not get to vote.”

State House Speaker Jose Oliva assuaged supporters’ fears, saying the Legislature “will execute the will of the people.”

“The idea that we would slow walk or attempt to change an amendment to the constitution passed by the people of the state of Florida is inconsistent with our principles,” Oliva said. “The amendment is clear and the effective date is clear.”

But even when their rights are restored, Paulson said, “a lot of individuals, probably well over half, won’t register to vote anyway. Having the right to do so and actually doing so are two different things.”

Former felons tend to have lower incomes and less education than the population at large, which correlates with being less likely to vote.

Paulson estimated that about 700,000 people, or about half of the estimated 1.4 million former felons in Florida, will register to vote — and of those, only about a third, or 230,000, will actually cast a regular ballot.

The next question is how those new voters will vote.

The 2018 election only solidified Florida’s reputation for razor-thin margins, with races for U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner determined by less than a percentage point combined.

In the time after Election Day, as Florida Democrats’ dreams of a blue wave of new Puerto Rican voters failed to appear, many turned to a new hope in the voters enfranchised by Amendment 4.

But Democratic strategist Steve Schale said it’s unlikely the new voters will automatically start to swing elections in the Democrats’ favor.

“People who live in Florida — just as we saw after (Hurricane) Maria — think, ‘This one big thing is going to dramatically reshape the state,’” Schale said. “I don’t believe that.”

Schale said the Democrats’ registration margin over Republicans in Florida has dipped from about 670,000 in 2008 to 260,000 in 2018.

“My party has to show up and register voters,” Schale said. “Could that potential pool of a million and a half people have an impact on politics? Absolutely. But none of this matters if parties can’t reach out.”

The Florida Rights Restoration Commission, the Orlando-based group behind the passage of Amendment 4, was careful to stress that the population of former, non-violent felons affected by the amendment was multiracial and crossed party lines — especially since the measure needed Republican votes to reach the needed 60 percent threshold to pass.

While the exact breakdown of the entire ex-felon population was unclear, whites made up about 46 percent of all state inmates released in 2016-17, blacks about 43 percent, and Latinos about 11 percent, according to the Department of Corrections, numbers similar to previous years.

“To its credit, the Republican Party didn’t come out against this,” said Allison DeFoor, founding chair of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University. “The bottom line is it was the right thing to do.”

DeFoor said studies have shown that former felons who have been granted clemency in the past were statistically more likely to register as independents. The requirement in the amendment to pay back all fines and restitutions also has an effect, he said.

“The historical evidence suggests — there’s not a lot of evidence, but it’s all we’ve got — that it slightly favors Republicans among people who’ve fit this model in the past in Florida,” DeFoor said. “Both parties have a real opportunity here. It’s kind of like a swearing-in (of new citizens) at a courthouse.”

Neil Volz, a Republican and the FRRC’s political director, is an ex-felon himself after having pleaded guilty in a pay-to-play scandal involving his former boss, former U.S. Rep. Bob Ney. He said the political effect will be more about issues, such as criminal justice, than any partisan swing.

“People impacted by the criminal justice system will have the opportunity to vote,” Volz said. “That issue affects all communities, and both parties have expressed interest in (reform).”

As for him, he said, when he finally walks in on Jan. 8 and registers, “it’ll feel like I’m taking the lid off my ability to participate in my community. And I’ll be a full citizen.”


©2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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