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A Society’s Debt, Now Paid In Full

road sign reading 'Welcome to Florida, The Sunshine State' and 'Governor Rick Scott'
photo by Shannon McGee

Partisanship aside, all Florida residents can count at least one win in the midterm election: the approval of Amendment 4, which will restore voting rights to approximately 1.4 million people in the state.

The constitutional amendment, which I have discussed before in this space, restores voting rights to Floridians who have been convicted of felonies – with exceptions for murder and felony sex offences – once they have completed all parts of their sentences, including parole and probation. Under Florida’s previous system, a felony conviction meant losing the right to vote for life, barring a successful appeal to the state’s clemency board, a body that rejected more than 90 percent of the petitions it heard under Gov. Rick Scott.

The amendment’s passage temporarily seemed under threat due to a well-meaning but misguided federal judge. In February, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida ruled the state’s system for restoring voting rights unconstitutional. Some voting rights advocates worried that this decision would galvanize the amendment’s opposition, lull its supporters into a false sense of security, or both. But the ruling, which was subsequently overturned by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was not enough to keep Floridians from voting in sufficient numbers to amend the state’s constitution.

This change is massive, not to mention long overdue. That reality is reflected in the amount of support the amendment garnered. In an election that was practically split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, Amendment 4 won 64 percent approval and passed handily, as I always expected it would. Letting ex-felons fully rejoin society as citizens with a right to help choose their government was simply the proper thing to do.

It was not long after the vote, however, before political commentators began to speculate on how adding more than 1 million potential voters to the state might reshape politics in Florida. And even before the midterms, some opponents wrongly argued that Amendment 4 was merely a ploy designed as a boost to the state’s Democrats.

In reality, the ultimate electoral effect of the amendment will be hard, if not impossible, to effectively predict. We will simply have to wait and see.

African-Americans are vastly overrepresented in the state’s prison population, at virtually half of all men (who make up 93 percent of the total prison population) and 30 percent of all women. The state is 17 percent African-American overall. But a somewhat larger share of the overall ex-felon population is probably white. Consider that white felons may benefit from better legal representation than their black counterparts, translating to more favorable plea agreements and more lenient sentencing. The Department of Corrections reported that in 2016-17, about 46 percent of all state inmates released were white, while about 43 percent were black. While African-Americans tend to vote heavily in favor of Democrats, white Floridians without college degrees tend more toward Republicans, and former felons as a group tend to have less education than the population at large.

The results will also depend on who actually turns out to vote now that they are eligible, and in which elections. As the 2018 midterm elections reminded the nation, races in Florida are often decided by tiny margins. So even if only a fraction of newly enfranchised voters register to vote and show up on Election Day, they could potentially swing a vote – in either direction. In urban areas with larger minority populations, like Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, restored voting rights may simply reinforce existing Democratic tendencies. But in statewide elections, and particularly midterms, the split might actually work against Democrats depending on the relative turnout of the newly re-enfranchised population.

As Allison DeFoor, founding chair of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel, “Both parties have a real opportunity here. It’s kind of like a swearing-in [of new citizens] at a courthouse.”

In fact, what the amendment will mean for elections in Florida is effectively anybody’s guess until there is real and reliable data. Such information will take at least several election cycles to emerge. But the reason to restore former felons’ voting rights was not to bolster a particular party’s chances at winning elections; it was that doing so was fair and right.

As I had hoped, my fellow Floridians did the right thing by our neighbors, without the need for federal judges to act as legislators and impose a replacement system of their own design. Beginning next month, most felons who complete all elements of their punishment can rejoin society with their debt marked “paid in full.” In turn, Florida has now returned something that it owed to more than 1 million of its citizens. That represents a win for everyone.

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