What role will Florida lawmakers play in restoring felons' voting rights?

Voters OK Amendment 4, but process to make it happen unclear

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – More than 5 million Floridian voters supported automatic restoration of a felon's right to vote when they voted yes on Amendment 4 earlier this month.

The amendment's language is straightforward: Felons can vote again after they’ve served their time, including any probation, and paid their fines. Felons convicted of murder and sex offenses were excluded.

However, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said getting felons back their rights is not quite that simple.

Lawmakers are already contemplating how to ensure more than 1 million newly enfranchised Floridians don’t face obstacles while trying to register.

“I would probably tend to recommend to voters that, be patient and wait a bit,” Earley said. "Don’t come to our office right now and try and register to vote, because we don’t have the data.”

Lawmakers still need to sort out how election supervisors will ensure felons are qualified to register to vote.

“We need to streamline the verification process and allow the supervisors to quickly verify whether someone is allowed to register,” said state constitution revision commissioner and former state Sen. Chris Smith.

Clemency lawyer Reggie Garcia argued the state can greenlight those who qualify for rights restoration with data it already has.

“There’s a current database of convicted felons who can’t vote, and that’s the exact list who arguably can now vote on Jan. 9, with the exception of anyone convicted of murder or a sex offense,” Garcia said.

It’s unclear how the more than 1 million newly enfranchised people will impact the outcome of Florida’s historically close elections and what, if any, influence they might have on the agenda of the Legislature.

Prison reform is a hot-button issue in the state. 

A new voter base with personal ties to the criminal justice system could create momentum.

“And our president is even talking about criminal justice reform,” Smith said. "So I think this is the year to finally try and get something like that done.”

How felons may register to vote and what party they register with will be something both parties will keep a close eye on.

The legislative session doesn’t begin until March, but bills have already begun being filed. So far, no proposals related to Amendment 4 have been put forward.