More than 1.6 million former felons could have their right to vote restored in 2018, when Florida voters could have the opportunity to reverse the state’s policy of permanently disenfranchising anyone with a felony conviction.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Voting Restoration Amendment, the proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore felons’ voting rights, follows the guidelines outlined in the state constitution.
“We approve the amendment for placement on the ballot,” the court wrote. If it is able to get hundreds of thousands more signatures, the amendment will appear on the ballot, where it will need 60 percent approval to pass.
In early March, the state’s highest court held a hearing in which attorney Jon Mills, representing Floridians for a Fair Democracy, claimed that the amendment meets the requirements to be put on the ballot.
“The question would have to be, ‘have you completed all terms of your sentence?’” he said, explaining how the state’s voter registration form could easily be changed from asking citizens about any felony convictions to asking whether the voter has completed his or her sentence.
State Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) took no position on the issue during the hearing.
The current clemency process in Florida is notoriously difficult. During his term as governor, Charlie Crist (R) made it easier for former felons to regain their rights, restoring the right to vote to more than 155,000 felons. But current Gov. Rick Scott (R) reversed that change in 2011 and mandated a waiting period before felons could even apply for clemency. Just 2,487 people have regained their voting rights since Scott took office in 2010.
Advocates of voting rights note that the state’s disenfranchisement law dates back to the post-Civil War era when Florida specifically wanted to keep black residents from gaining political power. Since then, the law has been used to keep millions of Democratic-leaning voters from participating in the electoral process.
If approved, Florida would be joining a growing list of states making it easier for people with felony convictions to vote. According to the Sentencing Project, 23 states in recent years have expanded their voter eligibility laws to include more former felons, and an estimated 840,000 citizens have regained their right to vote.
In total, 6.1 million Americans, mostly from Democratic-leaning demographic group, are barred from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws. An analysis released shortly before the 2016 election found that if Floridians with felony convictions were allowed to register, an estimated 258,060 would sign up as Democrats, 46,920 as Republicans, and 84,456 as independent and third party. And nearly 60,000 additional ballots would have been cast.
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not mention that the constitutional amendment still needs more signatures before it will officially appear on the ballot.