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Over a Million Felons Could Regain the Right to Vote in Florida

On the ballot today in Florida is one of the most consequential mid-term measures nationwide: The state's Amendment 4 would automatically restore voting rights to felons who complete their sentences (except those convicted of murder or a sexual offense, who would still need to individually petition). That would re-enfranchise an estimated 1.4 million felons—the largest group of people at one time since the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the vote in 1920.

Currently, anyone convicted of a felony in Florida must wait five years after the end of their sentence (including parole or probation), then petition to reinstate their civil rights if they want to vote again—and the sitting governor has the individual power to approve or dismiss any request. Even those who do petition face a backlog of 11,000 cases and a battery of extremely personal questions. Only three other states permanently disqualify felons: Kentucky, Virginia, and Iowa.

That means 1.6 million Florida residents are unable to vote. That's 10 percent of the state's adult population and one in five black residents. The numbers are also disproportionately high in Florida; the nationwide number of felons who can't vote is just above 6.1 million.

Under an expedited clemency process implemented during previous governor Charlie Crist's term, nearly 150,000 ex-felons were re-enfranchised. When current Governor Rick Scott took office, he ended the expedited process. Only around 3,000 people have been granted their voting rights during Scott's eight years in office, and he accepted the petitions of twice as many white people as black people. Although black people made up 43 percent of those released from state prisons in the last 20 years, only 27 percent of those who got their voting rights back under Scott were black.

Outside of the constitutional change, the process has been subject to a court battle in recent months. In March of 2018, a district judge called Florida's system for restoring rights unconstitutional and demanded the state adopt specific standards for restoration cases. In April, a federal court blocked the order, so felons can't vote on the amendment today.

The ballot measure needs more than a simple majority to pass—since it's a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution, 60 percent of voters have to approve it. Polling suggests that it's popular enough to pass, and it has received bipartisan support from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Freedom Partners, a Koch brothers-backed group. It's opposed by the Republican nominee for governor, Ron DeSantis, and the term-limited governor Rick Scott, who is running for a Senate seat in Florida.

Because Florida is often a battleground state with a thin margin, if the amendment passes, it could have a dramatic impact on federal elections.