Desmond Meade and Neil Volz, the leaders of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, were euphoric last week when Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions.
When Amendment 4 takes effect on January 8, Meade, Volz, and roughly 1.4 million people with criminal records will be able to register to vote — many for the first time ever. The milestone will be thanks to the work of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the movement to pass the historic initiative.
The organization plans to keep working, Meade said, and is already looking to continue building a movement of returning citizens that can advocate for criminal justice reform. They’re also planning to help formerly disenfranchised citizens to register to vote.
Amendment 4 is a self-executing ballot amendment, which means that it doesn’t require an act of Congress or the governor to take effect, Meade said.
“In January, when we walk into our local supervisor of elections office to vote, we’ll be doing so under the authority of the highest law in the state of Florida,” he told ThinkProgress. “We fully expect every elected official in the state of Florida to honor the law.”
Still, Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, said that newly eligible citizens will face the typical barriers to the ballot that exist for anyone trying to cast a ballot in a state with changing election laws.
“The barriers to voting for most folks are confusion about their voting rights, and there are things the state could do about that,” she said, adding that Florida officials should improve ballot access for all voters, whether or not they recently gained their civil rights.
Floridians who already had the right to vote experienced many of those barriers in the state’s election this year, and the issues likely be worse for newly-enfranchised voters in future elections, Porter said.
There also will be barriers that are unique to people with felony convictions. The fact that Amendment 4 doesn’t apply to people convicted of murder of violent sexual offense could pose some confusion, Porter said.
“Given the exclusions, the best next step would be for the state of Florida to send a letter to every resident who is now eligible to vote … welcoming them to civic engagement,” she said.
The state should provide information to individuals about their rights when they leave prison or transition off parole and probation, she said.
Another barrier may arise because Amendment 4 applies only to individuals who have paid off the fines and fees associated with their felony convictions. Experts say they worry that the inability to make those payments could leave many disenfranchised.
Porter suggested that there are potential solutions, including campaigns by the voters and organizations that supported Amendment 4 to raise money for those individuals.
While the Florida Rights Restoration Council has no plans to do that, Volz told ThinkProgress that the organization plans mobilize potential new voters and in the future will become involved beyond elections.
“We really want to take this a step at a time and encourage people to fully engage in their community and in this process,” Volz said. “We want to help develop leaders and great citizens and … it’s not just about the registration process.”
Keeping politics out of it
Meade highlights the fact that the movement was never partisan and secured more than five million votes — more than any individual candidate on the ballot in Florida this year.
After the election, many experts pointed to Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis’ small lead over Democrat Andrew Gillum, claiming that if people with felony convictions had voted in this election, Gillum would have won.
While likely correct, Meade and Volz said they both take issue with that rhetoric.
“This is not about how many Democrats could be registered or how many Republicans could be registered,” Meade said. “It’s about how many human beings could be welcomed back into our democracy.”
Volz, a Republican and former staffer for a GOP member of Congress, agreed. He expressed frustration that many have people already are couching Amendment 4 as a measure that will benefit Democrats, when in fact, it was passed with overwhelming support from both parties.
In the coming months, Meade said he hopes other states will look to Florida’s success — especially Virginia, Kentucky, and Iowa where felons are still barred from voting for life.
The lesson he wants them to take, he said, is that Floridians voted to pass Amendment 4 out of “love, not hate or fear.”
“It’s a testament to what we can accomplish when we come together for humanity and put people over politics,” he said.