Know before you vote: Amendment Four

Rick Patrick, ECB Publishing, Inc.

This is the fourth in a series of articles that appeared in the Jefferson County Journal. Each article examines one of the 13 proposed constitutional amendments that will be appearing on the Florida elections ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. This week's article takes a look at Amendment Four.

The proposed Amendment Four that will appear on this November's ballot deals with restoring voting rights to convicted felons. If the amendment passes, convicted felons, with the exception of murder or felony sexual offenses, would have their voting rights automatically restored once they complete their sentences, including prison time, parole, probation, etc.

Currently in Florida, a convicted felon must wait five or seven years, then enter an appeal to the Executive Clemency Board in order to have voting rights restored. The Executive Clemency Board consists of the Governor and members of the executive cabinet. On Feb. 1, 2018, US District Court Judge Mark Walker ruled that Florida's process for restoring voting rights for felons was unconstitutional, saying it violated the First and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution.

Gov. Scott appealed that decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit stayed the lower court's ruling. Between 2011 and 2016, 27,696 applications were made to the Clemency Board. Of these, 2,487, or nearly nine percent, were granted.

A 2016 report from The Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for changing laws to restore voting rights for felons, estimates that 2.5 percent of the nation's voting age population are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. In Florida, that percentage jumps to 10.43 percent of the state's voting age population, or a total of 1,686,318 convicted felons.

Locally, according to the latest data available from the Jefferson County Supervisor of Elections Office, there are five felons affected. This number, however, does not account for convicted individuals who may be in prison, who have since moved out of the county, or who are deceased.

There are supporters and opponents on both sides of this amendment debate. Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a committee in support of Amendment Four, has raised a total of $5,610,109 as of Friday, June 1. The top contributors to this organization is the American Civil Liberties Union, which has contributed $1,715,699. Other contributors to this organization include Laurie Michaels, Daniel Lewis, The Advocacy Fund, Civic Participation Fund, New Approach PAC, Organize Florida and Gamechanger.

During a recent town hall meeting in Madison, Sen. Bill Nelson voiced his support for restoring voting rights.

“My feeling is, if you've done your time and you're not still engaged in crime, you ought to have the right to vote,” said Nelson.

Other notable political supporters of Amendment Four include US Rep. Charlie Crist (D), Gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham (D), Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum (D), Gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine (D) and Gubernatorial candidate Christopher King.

“Americans believe in second chances,” states a statement from Floridians for a Fair Democracy. “We need to make sure that Florida Law does too. Nearly 1.5 million people in Florida are permanently excluded from voting because of a prior felony conviction. Florida is one of only four states that still has a system that excludes so many people from voting. These are our family members, friends, and neighbors who have already repaid their debts to society. Now is the time to restore the ability to vote to Floridians who have earned the opportunity to participate in and give back to their communities.”

On the other side of the coin, opposing Amendment Four, is the group Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy. As of Friday, June 1, this group had yet to raise any funds. Notable opponents to Amendment Four include Florida Speaker of the House Rep. Richard Corcoran ( R ) and Gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam ( R ).

“Other than murder and sexual felonies, it [the initiative] treats all other felonies as though they were the same,” says Richard Harrison, executive director of Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy. “It's a blanket, automatic restoration of voting rights. If it gets on the ballot, your only choice will be an all or nothing, yes or no vote on the amendment. If it passes, neither you nor anyone else will ever be allowed to consider the specifics of the crime or the post-release history of the criminal before that new voter registration card is issued.”

A poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida showed that 71 percent of respondents supported Amendment Four, 22 percent opposed it, and six percent were undecided. The poll was conducted between Jan. 29, 2018, and Feb. 4, 2018. There were 619 respondents and the poll had a margin of error of +/- 3.9 percent.

As with any issue, it would be wise for voters to carefully weigh both sides of this amendment and then make the wisest choice.