Voters in Florida gave the potential right to vote back to over one million felons—that is, people convicted of felony crimes, which can include a theft that amounts to as little as $300. Voting-rights advocates hailed it as a victory. Florida was one of just three remaining states that both automatically and permanently bar felons from voting. The amendment passed with 64% of the voters supporting it, and takes effect Jan. 8, 2019.
But hurdles remain for convicted citizens to regain that vote.
That starts with the state’s raw number of felons, which isn’t definitive, as it relies on analyses performed by different groups.
The executive director of the Cornell University Prison Education Program, Rob Scott, puts the total at 1.5 million not currently in jail or prison. He writes that 400,000 remain on parole or probation and thus are disqualified. Another 100,000 people remain permanently barred from voting, because the initiative excluded people convicted of murder or sexual offenses. That’s about 1.1 million remaining.
However, Marc Mauer at The Sentencing Project and Howard Simon at Florida’s ACLU chapter wrote in a February 2018 memo that the total population is 1.7 million and estimates that just 300,000 of them remain in prison, on probation, or on parole, or were convicted of murder or sexual offenses. That nets out to 1.4 million.
Just completing jail, prison, or supervised release doesn’t mean someone has “completed their sentence.” It’s not clear yet whether Florida’s interpretation of the initiative will require that all fines and fees associated have also been paid. Thirty other states require fines and fees be repaid.
That decision could be affected by the current Florida elections results for governor, which put the difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates at less than 0.50%, which will lead to a mandatory recount. The Democratic candidate may order a less-restrictive interpretation.
The Mauer/Simon memo estimates 40% of those otherwise qualified, or 560,000, have unpaid debts (often in the form of fines) to the state, and simply be too poor to pay them off.
Of the roughly estimated 700,000 to 900,000 who are able to pay their fines and fees, it won’t be clear until the next election cycle how many register and then vote. Because it’s been illegal for most former convicts to vote for so long, some may fear that they are violating the law by attempting to register and cast a ballot.
The Brennan Center for Justice said that in the previous clemency system, of the people with a felony crime on their record who received voting rights restoration, only 14% went on to register. Of that 14%, they voted 75% less than the statewide average of all registered voters.
Whichever total of felons is accurate, the figure represents roughly 10% of Florida’s population—and about 20% of black adults, despite African Americans being just 14% of the state’s voting-age population. The high-percentage of people of color is due to overpolicing, according to the ACLU, and the broad application of felony charges used for disenfranchisement that date back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction period in the South.
From 1997 to 2011, successive governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist granted clemency to about 75,000 and 150,000 applicants, respectively, allowing them to regain their voting rights. However, Rick Scott, currently in an elections battle with close results for a U.S. Senate seat from Florida, only granted clemency to 3,000 applicants over eight years.
One of the assumptions about those people whose vote had been removed due to convictions is that they broke heavily Democrat. An analysis by two Florida newspapers published Nov. 2 confirmed that, using voter registration data. About 52% had registered as Democrats and 14% as Republicans. The remaining 33% were independents. The Florida-wide split among all voters is 37% to 35% registered Democrat to Republican.