Florida GOP takes aim at felon voting rights in key 2020 battleground

https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/florida-gop-takes-aim-felon-voting-rights-key/story?id=61985622

Republican lawmakers in Florida are looking to narrow the scope of a sweeping ballot measure that restored the right to vote for people with felony convictions, a move that could potentially impact the state’s political climate.

The effort sets up a political fight over the broader issue of felon voting rights — a showdown in a significant swing state that voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump for president.

The dispute centers on Amendment 4, which passed by a wide margin last November, and could particularly affect African Americans, who are disproportionately incarcerated and overwhelmingly identify as Democrats. The measure reinstates the right to vote for a majority of felons who have completed their sentences, including probation, and paid back restitution.

It would exclude those who committed felony sexual offenses or murder.

However, since taking effect in January, the broad reach of the measure, and exactly which felons it applied to, has also raised questions among lawmakers in the state — and led the GOP-controlled legislature to introduce a pair of bills to steer implementation.

Both the House and Senate proposals would impose conditions before an ex-felon is allowed the right to vote. The bills outline a narrow definition of “completion of all terms of sentence,” which would put conditions on outstanding court-ordered fines and fees. It also includes a more expansive definition of people who’ve committed murder and felony sexual offenses.

Voting booths are setup at the Yuengling center on the campus of University of South Florida as workers prepare to open the doors to early voters, Oct. 22, 2018, in Tampa, Fla.(Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE) Voting booths are setup at the Yuengling center on the campus of University of South Florida as workers prepare to open the doors to early voters, Oct. 22, 2018, in Tampa, Fla.

“We’re trying to kind of clarify throughout the state of Florida what is the intent of the language of the law,” Sen. Keith Perry, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice subcommittee that passed the bill along party lines, told ABC News. “We are streamlining the process to make sure that the implementation across 67 counties in Florida is done fairly and correctly.”

Democrats argue that the proposals are just another way to disenfranchise a new segment of voters — a population that includes nearly 1.5 million people in the state.

“This isn’t just an attempt to gut Amendment 4, but an attempt to ensure former offenders remain on the outskirts of our society,” said Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who narrowly lost the governor’s race last year to Republican Ron DeSantis, in a statement. The legislation, he added, “puts a price on restoring the right to vote. It is unconstitutional and wrong.”

DeSantis, now the top Republican in the state, believes the legislature should clarify how the amendment is implemented, according to his communications director, Helen Ferre.

“Governor DeSantis is respectful of the legislative process and continues to review the bills,” she said in a statement to ABC News. “While he has not publicly weighed in on the bills, Governor DeSantis has stated that the legislature must provide clarity and structure to be able to properly implement Amendment 4.”

Florida is one of several states that have sought to integrate felons into the voting population over the last three years, part of a national trend that includes California, Colorado, Maryland, New York and Wyoming, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order in 2016 to automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons after completing their sentences, but it was overturned by the state’s Supreme Court.

Florida’s GOP seeks to limit voter eligibility for felons

Last week, the Florida House sent a version of its proposal out of committee. It would require felons to pay back all fees, even costs that were not initially part of a person’s sentence, before allowing them to legally vote.

The move by Republican legislators in the House drew swift reproach from top Democrats in the state, and beyond Florida’s borders.

Freshman New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez equated the bill to an unconstitutional “poll tax” reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

But one of the architects of the House bill suggested it was insulting to liken their bill to a poll tax.

“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” Rep. James Grant, the chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, told the Tampa Bay Times. “All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following the testimony of what was presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence.”

The Senate’s version, which cleared a subcommittee panel on Monday, only requires felons to pay fees imposed by a judge as part of the individual’s sentence.

The measure is expected to head to the Senate floor in the next few weeks.

Former felon Yolanda Wilcox, left, fills out a voter registration form as her best friend Gale Buswell looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.(John Raoux/AP, FILE) Former felon Yolanda Wilcox, left, fills out a voter registration form as her best friend Gale Buswell looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.

“The leaders to our South are attempting to pull a double whammy of voter suppression — ignoring the will of a supermajority of voters to prevent citizens from voting,” a spokesperson for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group launched by Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who failed in her bid for governor, told ABC News. “To not allow people who have paid their debt to society to participate in democracy, after your constituents have resoundingly spoken in favor, is a shameful and cynical ploy that must be stopped.”

Perry, who said he is a proponent of Amendment 4 and a long-time advocate of restoration and criminal justice reform, defended the Senate’s proposal.

“I think those are fair fees,” he said of court-ordered fees, before adding, “I don’t think those fees should ever be considered to stop someone from participating in voting. That’s the way I interpret the amendment’s language.”

But one former felon said that lawmakers are not giving enough consideration to the human aspect of the issue when crafting the proposals.

“We think there is a huge canyon between the returning citizen community and the politicians in Tallahassee in terms of understanding this issue from the perspective of real people’s lives,” Neil Volz, a former felon who pleaded guilty to violating lobbying laws and conspiring to corrupt public officials in 2006, told ABC News.

He stressed the importance of understanding a returning citizen’s perspective on defining “completion of sentence,” which he argued involves three components: finishing incarceration, finishing probation and supervision and making sure that the victim is whole.

“That’s restoration,” he said.

Volz, now the political director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, registered to vote on Jan. 8, the day Amendment 4 went into effect, and said he was “overwhelmed with gratitude and patriotism.”

“We were crying and hugging and celebrating the largest expansion of democracy in 50 years,” he said. “We believe when partisan politics injected itself into this process, we started to lose a little bit of that spirit.”

Neil Volz is hugged by Permon Thomas as he and Lance Wissinger, right, arrive to fill out a voter registration form at the Lee Country Supervisor of Elections office, Jan. 8, 2019 in Fort Myers, Fla. Mr. Wissinger and Mr. Volz, both with felony records, are were able to register to vote for the first time after a new constitutional amendment took effect, which automatically restores voting rights to most people who have felonies on their record.(Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Neil Volz is hugged by Permon Thomas as he and Lance Wissinger, right, arrive to fill out a voter registration form at the Lee Country Supervisor of Elections office, Jan. 8, 2019 in Fort Myers, Fla. Mr. Wissinger and Mr. Volz, both with felony records, are were able to register to vote for the first time after a new constitutional amendment took effect, which automatically restores voting rights to most people who have felonies on their record.

A new tipping point in Florida elections

Before the amendment passed, Florida was one of a small cohort of states that prohibited felons from exercising their right to vote.

But across the board, African Americans in the country are incarcerated at disproportionate rates — accounting for 2.3 million, or 34 percent, of the total correctional population in 2014, according to the NAACP Criminal Justice fact sheet. Of that incarcerated population, 21 percent of African Americans were disenfranchised in 2016, according to the Sentencing Project.

In last year’s midterm elections, two of the most pivotal races were for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s mansion, and both were forced into recounts after ending election night too close to call.

Those outcomes only heightened the scrutiny on counting every vote.

“Any small change can make a difference when the margins are so narrow in a state,” said Michael McDonald, an associate political science professor at the University of Florida, in an interview with ABC News. He also added that the voting eligible population among felons is likely much smaller than the more than 1.5 million number that has been reported — lessening the impact of the ballot measure.

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019.(Susan Walsh/AP) President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019.

But the current battle playing out in the state capital underscores Florida’s importance on the electoral map and the high stakes ahead in the presidential race.

“Florida is always close … so you can point to any factor in Florida and say it’s going to be decisive,” McDonald said. “Florida is a very complex state.”

He also offered a counter-argument about the impact of Amendment 4: the potential of the ballot measure to boost Republican voter turnout in the upcoming election.

“You would think that there’s a larger pool of African Americans and persons of color and that would be naturally predisposed to vote with the Democratic Party,” he said. “At the same time, they’re the people who have the lowest turnout rates. Who is more likely to vote is your sort of ‘Manaforts’ of the world — people who go off to the country club prisons for a white-collar crime and they’re the people who are able to pay the restitution because they’re wealthy already and so once they get back out into the world they’re the ones who are most likely to register.”

The ‘100-year storm’ coming in 2020

The full effect of Amendment 4 won’t be known until the 2020 presidential election, which is off to a crowded start in the Democratic field.

A historic 118 million people participated in last year’s midterm contests. For the upcoming election, the expectations for voter turnout across the board are even higher, due to one marquee factor: President Donald Trump.

“We just had 100-year high turnout for midterm elections and that’s a huge turnaround from 2014 when we had one of the lowest turnout rates in modern elections,” McDonald said. “The main factor is Donald Trump and he’s not going away. I expect that 2020 we’re probably going to see some record turnout rates for modern elections.”

Despite the ongoing political debate in Tallahassee, voters in Florida, supplemented by the newly reenfrachised population, could potentially make a big impact on turnout in the 2020 presidential race.

“I’m calling it a 100-year storm,” he added.