November was a busy month for legal and political news. It is nearly impossible to stay on top of everything happening. So what if I told you I wanted to focus on a state-wide election in Florida? Something happened in this election which may be a very big deal in the future. Or it may not make much difference at all. Voters in Florida just did something seemingly monumental, but with unknown implications.
Florida has been home to several razor-thin margins in recent election cycles. The Bush-Gore election, and the importance of hanging and dimpled chads, is the most obvious example. Just this year the governor’s race was so close it went to an automatic machine recount. The U.S. Senate race was even closer; it went to a manual recount. But there was one issue where Florida voters seem to reach a broad consensus. Florida decided to amend the state constitution and allow 1.5 million convicted felons to vote in the next election. Nearly ten percent of the voting age population of Florida will be impacted.
Because this was an amendment to the state constitution it required a super majority of at least 60%. Given on the coin-flip decisions in Florida, you would have been justified in assuming the electorate was so divided they would not be able to pass anything with 60% of the vote. Surprisingly, the amendment no only passed, it cleared the threshold fairly easily. The final tally showed the amendment received 64% of the vote.
There are limitations to the amendment. First, murder and felony sex crime convictions are not eligible. Second, the individual must complete their prison sentence, including any post-incarceration parole and probation. Then they are automatically allowed to vote. I believe they will have to register again (and comply with any voter identification laws in Florida).
Prior to this amendment, Florida residents with a felony conviction could apply to have their voting rights restored. Ultimately, the governor was responsible for the determination. In four years, from 2007 through 2011, Governor Charlie Christ restored voting rights to approximately 150,000 people (or about 37,500 per year). But, in the past seven years, Governor Rick Scott has restored only a tiny fraction of that – about 3,000 over seven years (just over 400 per year). Florida voters decided to go well beyond what either governor had done and immediately restore voting rights to about 1,500,000 citizens.
Voting is primarily a creature of state law. There are some Federal protections in the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, but the mechanics of voting are basically left to the individual states. Florida was one of only four states which prohibited citizens with felony records from voting even after completing their sentence. The other three states are Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia. However, in Virginia, the past two governors have used their executive power to essentially overturn this rule. As a result, there were only three states enforcing a restriction this severe. (By way of contrast, two states do not take away voting rights even during incarceration, meaning citizens can vote from prison. Those states are Vermont and Maine.) Florida will now treat prior felony convictions much the same way as the majority of states do, including both Kansas and Missouri.
What makes this situation so interesting is no one really knows what the impact will be on future elections. People have speculated how this population will vote. No one knows for sure because no one has done any opinion polls of Florida felons. It is also unknown what percentage of these citizens will register and actually vote. Finally, with any group this large it is probably unwise to assume they will vote a particular way. It will be fascinating to see what impact the amendment has on Florida elections, which have been fascinating to watch even before this change.