On Tuesday, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 with over 64 percent of the vote. The passage of the citizen- driven initiative will grant the right to vote to over a million Florida citizens that have been convicted of felonies at some point in their lifetimes.
It's an historic victory for voting rights, according to Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida.
But the next step is implementation. And the Florida state government has failed to implement citizen-driven ballot amendments in recent years. In 2014, voters passed Amendment 1, which ordered the state to set aside funds for Everglades restoration. The state legislature repeatedly used those funds for other things, and lost a lawsuit that found it "defied" the citizen initiative.
And then in 2016, voters passed Amendment 2 with 71 percent of the vote. That amendment legalized medical marijuana in the state. State officials severely restricted the accessibility of medical marijuana and the legislature passed a law banning medical marijuana from being smoked; state courts have since ruled that ban was unconstitutional.
This week, along with passing Amendment 4, voters also elected Republican Ron DeSantis for Governor and Republican Ashley Moody for Attorney General. Both ran against Amendment 4. Likewise, both houses of the state legislature still have Republican majorities that were vocally opposed to Amendment 4.
In conversation with the ACLU’s Simon, WLRN asks: Why is it such a big deal that Amendment 4 passed? And will it be implemented as intended?
Some of this conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
WLRN: First of all, the passage of Amendment 4 was a major win for the ACLU and other civil rights groups. What’s the significance of that victory?
SIMON: Well first I want to say that this was such a broad coalition of organizations. Many have worked their hearts out. I’ve worked on this issue for 18 years, since the notorious election in Florida between George Bush and Al Gore, and the felon purge list that played such a role in the outcome of that election.
But as to the significance of this? Wow, I think this is the largest extension of the right to vote in America since the 1920 extension of the right to vote for women, and the constitutional amendment that extended the right to vote to people who are 18-years-old.
In the past the state of Florida hasn’t always followed the spirit of ballot measures that were passed by Florida voters when it comes to how they’re implemented … Is there a chance that something like that might happen with voting rights restoration?
Well, I’m not naive. It’s something that could happen. There are a couple of things that I want to say about this. First of all, our legislature has been hostile to the elimination of the Civil War-era, Jim Crow lifetime felon disenfranchisement. I’m not overlooking that, I’m not naive. I hit that brick wall many times.
Our newly elected Governor said he was not a fan of Amendment 4.
The other thing is that the language that we wrote -- I was on a committee of three people that worked for a year and a half on crafting this language -- is as clear as it could be, and it’s self-executing.
It says that voting rights “shall be restored.” I don’t know what is unclear about that, what could be unclear about that. “Voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all the terms of a sentence.” This was written in a way intentionally -- we worked ... on this language intentionally to say that there is no role for politicians. People in the legislature, people in the Governor’s office, people in the Secretary of State’s office -- there’s no role for politicians to decide who gets to vote in Florida and who doesn’t get to vote in Florida. You have automatically had your right to vote restored upon completion of all the terms of a sentence.
The amendment that voters passed relates specifically to the right to vote. What about the other rights that someone loses when they’re convicted of a felony, like the right to own a gun, run for political office or participate in a jury?
In Florida, you lose your civil rights upon conviction of a felony. But Amendment 4, as we helped write it craft it and get it passed, only applies to the right to vote. Other elements of your civil rights will have to wait for some other major reform.
But you know, change in America is incremental. And this was an incremental change, although it was a big change. The right to vote is the most fundamental right that you have as an American citizen, so Amendment 4 only applied to the right to vote.
There’s an open federal appeals court case about the process of how someone convicted of a felony can get their rights restored. Would the outcome of that case impact this new automatic restoration in any way?
That’s a good question, I’m not certain. I will say that the clemency process still is in effect for those people that are not covered by Amendment 4: Those people who are convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. Those people can only get their rights back after they’ve completed all the terms of their sentence, and after they receive clemency from the Clemency Board, which is the Governor and the three other statewide elected officials.
That process will still be in place, and that process will still have to have some rational, coherent, fair standards. That’s what the current pending lawsuit stands for. (Editor’s Note: A federal court found the current rights restoration process through the Clemency Board is arbitrary and unconstitutional, but that finding could be reversed by the appeals court.)
But as to everybody else, people who were convicted of a felony other than murder or a sex offense, once they’ve completed all the terms of their sentence, under our newly amendment their right to vote is automatically restored.
What are the next steps that you’ll be taking trying to make sure that this is implemented? Is there some kind of contingency plan if the state tries to block this effort in some kind of way?
We think that on January 8th, when the constitutional amendment goes into effect, people can go to their supervisor of election. They need proof of who they are. But just by affirming that their right to vote has been restored they should be able to register to vote.
I’m going to presume the best of intentions, but if the legislature tries to erect barriers, if the Secretary of State tries to erect barriers, this language of Amendment 4 is so clear it will be great ammunition to try to prevent the legislature from erecting barriers.