Let them vote

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion -

The lan­guage in Amend­ment 4 is clear: the vot­ing rights of most of Flor­ida’s felons “shall be re­stored upon com­ple­tion of all terms of sen­tence in­clud­ing pa­role or pro­ba­tion.” Yet ques­tions are swirling about what needs to hap­pen be­fore the amend­ment takes ef­fect next month and even about what con­sti­tutes a com­pleted sen­tence. In­stead of com­pli­cat­ing this straight­for­ward amend­ment, state of­fi­cials, law­mak­ers and county elec­tions su­per­vi­sors should ac­cept the will of the vot­ers and em­brace a smooth reg­is­tra­tion process for felons who should not have their new vot­ing rights tan­gled up in red tape.

Ap­proved in Novem­ber by nearly 65 per­cent of vot­ers, the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment will au­to­mat­i­cally re­store the right to vote for felons who have com­pleted their sen­tences, ex­clud­ing those con­victed of mur­der or sex crimes. It could add more than 1 mil­lion new vot­ers to the rolls, rep­re­sent­ing the fourth largest ex­pan­sion of vot­ing rights in U.S. his­tory. Not much should have to hap­pen to clear that path, yet Sec­re­tary of State Ken Det­zner told elec­tions su­per­vi­sors this week that the Leg­is­la­ture needs to pro­vide “di­rec­tion” on how to im­ple­ment the mea­sure. The Leg­is­la­ture re­fused for decades to act on this is­sue, leav­ing Flor­ida one of only three states that per­ma­nently dis­en­fran­chises any­one with a felony con­vic­tion. That in­ac­tion is why the is­sue landed on the bal­lot fol­low­ing a grass-roots pe­ti­tion drive.

It’s no se­cret that many in the Re­pub­li­can-dom­i­nated Leg­is­la­ture op­posed Amend­ment 4, so Florid­i­ans have every rea­son to be sus­pi­cious of “di­rec­tion’’ that could make it dif­fi­cult for felons to reg­is­ter. Den­nis Bax­ley, the new chair­man of the Se­nate Ethics and Elec­tions Com­mit­tee, asked whether those seek­ing to reg­is­ter have to com­plete pro­ba­tion and pay their debts. The ob­vi­ous an­swer: Yes. It says so in the amend­ment that “all terms” of a per­son’s sen­tence have to be com­pleted. Those could in­clude pri­son or jail time, fees and court costs, vic­tim resti­tu­tion and other re­quire­ments.

There’s also ques­tions over whether the word­ing on the state voter reg­is­tra­tion form needs up­dat­ing. It cur­rently asks ap­pli­cants to af­firm that “I am not a con­victed felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been re­stored.” Ap­pli­cants must an­swer truth­fully — just as they must af­firm they are U.S. cit­i­zens and have not been de­clared men­tally in­ca­pac­i­tated. Af­ter the amend­ment takes ef­fect Jan. 8, ev­ery­one who has com­pleted their sen­tence fully can truth­fully an­swer that their right to vote has been re­stored.

Sen. Dar­ryl Rou­son, D-St. Peters­burg, says the amend­ment needs clar­i­fi­ca­tion and raises some im­por­tant con­cerns, es­pe­cially that felons may try to reg­is­ter to vote without re­al­iz­ing they have an out­stand­ing court fine or other un­met obli­ga­tion in their sen­tence. He is con­sid­er­ing fil­ing leg­is­la­tion to ad­dress that pos­si­bil­ity and other is­sues, in­clud­ing cre­at­ing a state hot­line for felons to call to get ba­sic in­for­ma­tion about their el­i­gi­bil­ity.

In the mean­time, noth­ing should pre­vent those who are el­i­gi­ble from be­gin­ning to reg­is­ter next month. Flor­ida vot­ers have spo­ken, and any de­lay in im­ple­ment­ing Amend­ment 4 would vi­o­late the Flor­ida Con­sti­tu­tion. It would also fur­ther dis­en­fran­chise real peo­ple in Tampa and Plant City, where mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions are set for next spring. Every el­i­gi­ble per­son should be able to vote in those lo­cal elec­tions — in­clud­ing felons who have ful­filled all of the re­quire­ments of their sen­tences.

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