Florida’s Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis (R) is trying to undermine one of the most momentous progressive wins of the midterm election, after an estimated 1.4 million people had the right to vote restored when Amendment 4 passed last month. Nearly 65 percent of voters in the state approved the measure.
The amendment itself was simple: People convicted of a felony would have their voting rights restored after completing the terms of their sentence. The only exception would be for people convicted of murder or felony sexual assault.
But DeSantis told the Palm Beach Post late Wednesday that the measure shouldn’t go into effect as envisioned by the 5.2 million Floridians who voted for it. First, he said, the state’s lawmakers should pass “implementing language” in a separate bill that would require his signature before going into effect.
Florida’s legislature doesn’t meet for two months after Amendment 4’s scheduled implementation date, January 8 of next year.
“They’re going to be able to do that in March,” DeSantis said of passing implementation language. “There’s no way you can go through this session without implementing it.”
Howard Simon, the ACLU’s former executive director who helped draft Amendment 4, told the Tampa Bay Times that DeSantis is deliberately misreading the intent of the measure, which made national news as the biggest enfranchisement of voters in the United States since suffrage.
DeSantis’ job “is to facilitate the wishes of the voters, not frustrate and delay what the voters overwhelmingly called for,” Simon told the daily. “The new language of our Constitution goes into effect on January 8 — and that becomes the highest law of the land. The governor doesn’t have the right to set aside the Constitution.”
It’s all part of a barrage of efforts to slow roll the implementation of the measure. Liza McClenaghan, Florida state chair of Common Cause, a voter advocacy group, told the Tampa Bay Times that the state appears to be putting in new barriers to vote.
“Why did we have a constitutional amendment in the first place?” she told the daily last week. “The people took care of that by creating a self-implementing amendment. It’s a curious situation,” she said.
In the weeks since the election, Florida election officials say they still have yet to receive any direction from the state on how to begin registering “returning citizens” the label adopted by many people who have served their time after felony convictions.
Many returning citizens who spent months and years organizing to regain the vote expressed a sense of betrayal.
“We did everything the proper way to make sure this was passed,” Valencia Gunder, an activist and returning citizen, told ThinkProgress. “Everything they told us [to do], we did, and the fact that they’re trying to stop us, it’s ridiculous… I served my time, and I shouldn’t continue to be punished.”
Reached by WLRN last month, Chris Moore an election official in Leon County, said, “Funny you bring this up. I just left a voicemail with someone at the Department of State about an hour ago trying to get some information on this.”
Another, Lori Edwards in Polk County, told The Tampa Bay Times, “They wouldn’t give any direction to us, and they didn’t provide a timeline,” while Mike Bennett, an official from Manatee County, said of the state’s response, “It’s typical. It’s going to hit the fan.”
In response to the comments from county officials, Florida’s Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state’s election head, told The Times he couldn’t make any decisions without input from the state legislature.
“We need to get some direction from [the legislature] as far as implementation and definitions—all the kind of things that the supervisors were asking,” Detzner said. “It would be inappropriate for us to charge off without direction from them.”
The legislature’s March 5 return date is the same day as the Tampa mayoral election — an election many returning citizens had hoped to be able to cast their first ballots since regaining the right to vote after the passage of Amendment 4.
Gunder told ThinkProgress she sees the subtle attempts to undermine implementation as an attempt to control what Florida’s voting population looks like.
“We decide presidential elections, and we’re about to add a million people to the rolls,” she said. “The individuals that run our state are not ready for this change, even though the people of Florida have spoken.”
The talk of involving the legislature specifically has raised red flags for returning citizens who are planning to register to vote next month.
“We think there’s a process that needs to play out in which people are just talking openly about next steps, but we also think some things are just straightforward,” said Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and a returning citizen himself. “It’s clear to us that it’s self-executing.”
Gunder echoed that feeling.
“The legislature does not have to be involved,” she said. “They’re deciding to be. I’m not a lawyer, but I can read pretty well.”