Politics cloud felon voting rights restoration in Florida

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TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) – Elections officials across Florida say they expect former felons to flock to their offices to register to vote next month when a newly passed ballot initiative launches one of the largest enfranchisement efforts in modern U.S. history.

FILE PHOTO: Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks at his midterm election night party in Orlando, Florida, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

But partisan politics and logistical questions are clouding the Jan. 8 rollout of a state constitutional amendment that could restore voting rights to more than 1 million ex-felons in Florida.

Democrats and voting rights advocates cried foul this week when Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, a Republican and critic of the measure known as Amendment 4, said the Republican-controlled state legislature must first pass a law to implement its changes.

“I don’t see any way around that, regardless of whether you want it, you know, all to be implemented tomorrow or whether you are trying to kind of frustrate it,” DeSantis said in a recorded interview with the Palm Beach Post published on Thursday.

Representatives for DeSantis did not respond to Reuters’ requests on Friday for additional comment.

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo in a statement called DeSantis’ move an “act of voter suppression by Republicans who want to pick and choose who should have the right to vote.”

And state Senator Dennis Baxley, the Republican chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee, agreed the measure largely could take effect without new laws.

“No one in the Senate desires to slow walk this,” he said. “We want to get things in order.”

Democrats have celebrated the measure’s passage as a civil rights victory, as well as a chance to expand the electorate in their favor in battleground Florida, the largest of the states that swing between parties in presidential elections.

Florida has barred ex-felons from voting for 150 years. African-Americans, who favor the Democratic Party, have been disproportionately affected by felon voter disenfranchisement.

The measure approved by more than 64 percent of Florida voters in November states that felons’ “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence,” with exceptions for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

Previously, felons could regain their voting rights by appealing for clemency to a state board, which under recent Republican control had approved only a few hundred requests each year with more than 10,000 applications pending.

Members of a bipartisan coalition that wrote the ballot initiative and campaigned for its passage are adamant that its language was designed to take effect without any further laws.

At the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, a champion of the measure, voting rights and elections project director Myrna Pérez said DeSantis’ reported position “sounds like the efforts of a bunch of politicians to try and thwart the will of the people.”

POLITICAL IMPACT

Research shows Republicans may not suffer much from the measure’s implementation, said Marc Meredith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied felon voting rights restoration.

Many of the new voters likely will not affiliate with either party, he said.

Based on voting patterns by former felons, Meredith thought the change may net some 150,000 additional votes statewide, and more would likely be Democrats than Republicans. But, he said, the numbers may not be overwhelming, even in a state that often sees razor-thin election margins.

“There is no convenient prescription that folks are just going to turn out one way or another,” said Neil Volz, a former Republican who is now political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that pushed for the measure.

In the Florida governor’s race in November, there were more than 8 million ballots cast. DeSantis won by roughly 32,000 votes over his Democratic challenger, Andrew Gillum. According to the Florida Division of Elections, as of Oct. 31 there were about 13.4 million registered voters in the state.

Local elections officials are grappling with myriad issues, such as how to verify decades-old court records to determine voting eligibility.

“Nobody knows what they are doing,” said Joyce Griffin, the supervisor of elections in Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys. “We need direction.”

She said she planned to register two friends with long-passed felony sentences at their homes when the measure takes effect on Jan. 8, and she will do the same for other eligible ex-felons who show up at her office.

Reporting by Letitia Stein; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler

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