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Ex-Felon Voting Rights Restoration Amendment Takes Effect Amid Questions

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

More than one million of former felons in the state of Florida will be able to register to vote beginning this Tuesday, when the Voting Restoration Amendment 4 takes effect.

There has been a lot of preparation and anticipation for implementation.

Sara Latshaw has been looking forward to this day on behalf of the many individuals in the state who were excluded from the election process due to their felony convictions and were kept out long after completion of their sentences.

“In November, over 64 percent of Florida voters from all walks of life and political persuasions approved Amendment 4 and that reflects a belief that when a debt is paid it is paid,” said Latshaw, deputy political director of the ACLU of Florida. The organization is one of many that campaigned for passage of the amendment, which makes restoration of ex-felons’ voting rights automatic.

“And, I believe on January 8, Amendment 4 will go into effect and folks will be able to register who have paid their debt to society.”

According to the ballot summary, the amendment to Florida’s Constitution “restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation (and the payment of fines). The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.”

That said; Latshaw is not anticipating any problems with implementation.

“The language is very clear in the amendment and these terms have been defined by the Florida legislature and it’s incumbent on the Dept. of Elections to ensure that the supervisors of elections throughout the state of Florida have clear directives to ensure that the will of the voters is in fact executed,” she said.

However, the issue of implementation is of the amendment is not so explicit to everyone. Florida’s next governor Ron DeSantis has questioned whether state lawmakers, who don’t meet in session until March, need to adopt “implementing” legislation.

Paul Lux is Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections and serves as President of the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association in Florida. He says what is clear is that there are a lot of moving pieces and parts.

“While most of us do not disagree with the fact that this amendment is self-enacting, we do still have some serious reservations about a lack of information on quite a number of points as it relates to Amendment 4,” said Lux.

For instance, Lux points to some of the many questions that have arisen among his elections colleagues, “First and foremost, what does completing all of your sentence mean? Does it include restitution, if you were ordered to pay restitution? Does it include paying court costs, if you were ordered to pay court costs? If when you were released from parole or probation, your bill for court costs or restitution was converted to a civil lien so it could be taken off their books, have or haven’t you met the terms of your sentence?”

There are also calls for clarification as to which specific crimes would be defined as murder or sexual offense and subject to a permanent ban on voter registration.

And, like Okaloosa’s Paul Lux, Escambia County Elections Supervisor David Stafford is concerned about questions related to verification of eligibility for registration.

“One of the challenges I foresee is people looking to us to make that determination for the individual voter is “have I completed my sentence” and we’re just not equipped to do that,” Stafford explained.

One of the biggest issues is how the State Division of Elections will actually handle applications, now that clemency records will no longer be the single source for proof of eligibility.

“I know that there’s not a database right now where either we or the individual can go check to see if they’re in that database or if there’s one being contemplated,” said Stafford. “So, in essence, it’s incumbent on that individual voter to be able to answer that question on the form that says you have to affirm that you’ve not been convicted of a felony or if so, that you’ve had your rights restored.”

It appears some adjustments will be needed.

Meantime, individuals who are unsure of their status should contact the Florida Office of Executive Clemency, the Clerk of the Circuit Court in the county where they were sentenced, the Florida Department of Corrections where they were supervised or incarcerated, or the U.S. Probation Office if their case was in the federal court system.

For those ready to move forward, Stafford, Lux and other local supervisor of elections officials will begin processing applications as required when their offices open on this Tuesday.

According to Stafford, the civil rights issue aside, the process of verification is the same for everyone in determining an applicant is who they say they are and not already registered to vote. Also, the process of removing from the rolls will continue for those convicted of felonies.

For the most part, it will be business as usual.

“Certainly, in the short term, we will be processing Florida voter registration applications that are complete on their face and we will be entering them into the system,” Stafford said. “Once they’re verified then that person becomes a registered voter.”

Stafford says he’s been holding on to the application of an individual who tried to register the day after Amendment Four was passed and will process that one first.

Voters have a variety of ways to register, including online through the State Division of Elections, Division of Motor Vehiclesand local supervisor of elections websites: escambiavotes.com, govote-okaloosa.com, votesantarosa.com. Individuals can vote by mail, at any Florida Driver License office, and several other governmental offices. And, as always, individuals are welcome to register in person at their local elections office.

ACLU’s Sara Latshaw will be there (at the Escambia office) on this milestone day.

“I will be headed down to the supervisor of elections office with a returning citizen who has gotten her right to vote back and we will go down and she’s going to register to vote.”

ACLU has created an intake form on their website for anyone who has an issue registering. Those unsure of their status can ask questions by calling a special hotline, 1-877-MYVOTE-0.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.