The Florida Legislature adjourned Saturday after approving a $91.1 billion state budget that includes several tax cuts (the dividend Floridians get for living in a prosperous, business-friendly state), as well as a raft of related legislation.
Among the measures that passed, though not directly related to the budget, is a provision to clarify and implement Amendment 4. This amendment, which I and nearly two-thirds of my fellow Florida voters supported last fall, restored voting rights to most felons after they have completed their sentences. Murderers and sex offenders were excluded mainly to ensure that the measure could pass, as the amendment’s most prominent advocate, Desmond Meade, told me and my associates in a visit to our Fort Lauderdale office last year. Meade chaired the Floridians for a Fair Democracy campaign in support of Amendment 4.
Constitutional amendments need at least 60% voter approval to be enacted in Florida. The voting rights restoration amendment cleared that bar handily with 64.5%. Support was solid among Democrats but mixed among Republicans and independents, with a majority of Republicans likely voting against the measure. But in an election in which no statewide Democratic candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote – Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried beat her GOP opponent by just over 5,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast – the Republican voters who supported Amendment 4 were crucial to its passage. I am proud to say I was among them.
The amendment itself was not complicated. It provided that, other than for individuals convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” The language was so simple and clear, in fact, that proponents contended the provision was “self-executing,” requiring no legislative action at all to take effect. That is how things played out. Beginning Jan. 8, when the amendment came into force, former felons across Florida began to certify that they had completed the terms of their sentence and were now eligible to vote. Many did vote in local elections in March.
But while simplicity is a virtue in the law, clarity is an even greater virtue. What, exactly, is a “felony sexual offense” to which the amendment does not apply? Is a conviction for attempted murder tantamount to a conviction for murder, and thus also excluded from the amendment’s terms? And has a convicted felon completed “all terms of sentence” if court-ordered restitution is still owed to the victim? What about fines for the criminal violation, or civil fines and court costs?
Florida legislators took on these questions in the just-ended session, over the loud objections of some Amendment 4 advocates and Democratic lawmakers. The final result was fair and reasonable. But this has done nothing to quiet the critics, who see both moral and political advantage in invoking the state’s racist past to rewrite recent history.
On mainly party-line votes, legislators declared that the provision about completing “all terms of sentence” means exactly what it says. If a court-imposed sentence includes a criminal fine or restitution to the victim, the convicted felon does not regain voting rights until he or she satisfies those terms. The individual can satisfy these terms by payment, but also by persuading a victim to waive restitution. The legislation additionally allows a judge to grant permission for fines to be converted to community service obligations; if those hours are completed, the fines or restitution are considered paid. Civil fines and post-conviction financial penalties do not bar the felon from regaining the right to vote.
The new provision defines “murder” to include premeditated killings and material support for terrorism “which results in the actual killing of a human being.” The term does not include attempted murder in this context.
Some newly registered ex-convicts might have been exposed to prosecution for voter fraud if they claimed restored voting rights without having satisfied restitution or other conditions. But the new law exempts from prosecution anyone registered between Jan. 8 and July 1, when the legislation takes effect. The law also states that any limitations on registration are to be construed narrowly, with ambiguities resolved in favor of the would-be voter.
None of this is unreasonable or inconsistent with constitutional amendment that I and most of my fellow Florida voters supported last autumn. None of it has anything to do with a former felon’s ethnic or socioeconomic background. But that has not stopped critics from raising the specter of Florida’s Jim Crow past and accusing legislators of trying to bring it back in modern form.
“Florida legislators agree to limit felons voting rights. Critics call it a new poll tax.” Such was the characteristically overwrought headline in The Washington Post. The League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union have both said they are considering lawsuits. The editorial page of my hometown news outlet, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, went so far as to express the hope that any such lawsuit lands in front of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee. In the past, Walker has displayed some confusion between his position as an Article III federal judge and a lifetime appointment as the state’s Jiminy Cricket.
It is difficult to accuse the Legislature’s critics of dog-whistling when the accusations of racism are so audible to noncanines too. While it is true that in Florida, as elsewhere, African-Americans are convicted and incarcerated at rates much higher than their share of the population, Amendment 4 backers were quick to point out during the election campaign that, in fact, a majority of ex-felons are white. Not that this has any relevance to the policy consideration behind the amendment: Once people have paid their debt to society, they deserve to be readmitted to society as full citizens, including the right to help elect their representatives and other public officials. As I wrote many months ago, there should be no such thing as an unpayable debt.
Court-ordered restitution is part of that debt – sometimes the most important part. Consider this: A drug addict breaks into your home, steals the ring your grandfather once saved years to buy for your grandmother, and sells it for a fix. While nothing can replace that particular ring in your heart, restitution from the individual is a way of making amends. It is important to help both parties move on. Now consider how you might feel upon meeting that offender at your neighborhood polling station, when he has failed to make good on his obligations to you and the court.
Bear in mind that minorities are not only disproportionately represented in crime prosecutions; they suffer more than their share as crime victims, too. What makes Amendment 4 proponents so quick to waive their right to have their financial interests protected in the criminal justice system? It raises the question of who, exactly, is being racially insensitive in this debate.
Some would make the case that felons should not lose their voting rights at all. Maine and Vermont even allow prison inmates to vote. That is remarkable when you consider that an inmate cannot legally consent to sex with a guard because of the threat of coercion, but would have to vote while in the custody of that same correctional officer.
One could also make the case that voting rights should be restored once an inmate is released, or upon completion of probation or parole. The drafters of Amendment 4 could have written it that way. But just as they decided strategically to exclude sex offenders to facilitate passage, they wrote a stricter requirement of “all terms of sentence” because those terms were easier to sell to voters like me.
Some critics of the Legislature’s action complain that voters intended to permit lawmakers to apply a more lenient definition. This argument is arrogant, condescending and wrong. It is fair to say that many, though not all, Amendment 4 voters might have preferred the more lenient definition. But what they intended to vote for was the language that was on the ballot. The only choice in front of them was to support it or not. Memo to those making this argument: Voters can read.
Meade, the Amendment 4 advocate who visited our office last year, has called for patience in waiting to see how the new legislation plays out. “For now, we will continue to move forward in the spirit of creating a more inclusive and vibrant democracy for all by seeking to register qualified returning citizens in Florida,” Meade said.
Nothing prevents a future Legislature from amending the law to drop the restitution requirement. Such an attempt would probably fail in the current statehouse, but people can change their minds – or change their representatives. Go ahead and make that case if you so choose. But supporting passage of one provision and then claiming that voters actually meant to enact a different one is a simple bait-and-switch. It won’t change many minds at all.