SARASOTA, Fla. – Florida officials don’t have a plan for how to carry out a constitutional amendment that restores the right to vote to more than a million Floridians convicted of felonies, state Division of Elections director Maria Matthews told county elections supervisors Tuesday.
Amendment 4, approved by nearly 65 percent of voters last month, “automatically” restores voting rights for convicted felons who have completed their sentences, paid restitution and court costs and fulfilled probation requirements. The amendment, which goes into effect Jan. 8, excludes murderers and felony sex offenders.
“The state is putting a pause button on felon identification files,” Matthews told supervisors gathered at the Westin hotel in Sarasota for a winter conference, referring to lists sent to county elections officials that flag people who are ineligible to vote.
Matthews said the state has about 30 days before the amendment goes into effect. Among the many issues at play are definitions in the amendment, such as when a “sentence” is completed, she pointed out. Sentences can be converted to “civil judgments,” Matthews said.
“That’s why we need this time to research it and make sure that we are providing the appropriate guidance as to what do these terms mean and how to implement the will of the people, which was their intent that, if someone has completed their sentence, that they should be able to register to vote. And that’s what we’re going to do,” Matthews said.
But Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards pressed Matthews on how long it would take for the state to provide guidance about the amendment, and whether the Legislature --- which begins holding committee meetings next week but does not convene its 2019 session until March --- would be responsible for implementing the voting-registration change.
“I think that is something that is still under debate,” Matthews said. “We’re hoping within the next month, this will flesh out so that we’ll be able to provide you the guidance that you need.”
But Matthews’ answers left Edwards and others dissatisfied.
“We’re getting a lot of inquiries from our constituents, from the public. People are very aware of this and they’re wanting to act. We came to the conference today looking for direction from the state Division of Elections. As you know, the secretary of state reminds us that he’s the chief elections official. And they didn’t help. They didn’t give any direction to us. And they wouldn’t give us a timeline of when they will,” Edwards told The News Service of Florida following Matthews’ presentation.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, said it’s up to the Legislature and the Board of Executive Clemency to draft a blueprint for the amendment.
“We need to get some direction from them as to implementation, definitions, all the kinds of things that the supervisors were asking,” Detzner said. “It would be inappropriate for us to charge off in a direction without some leadership from them.”
But legislative leaders haven’t decided whether they need to act.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said in a recent interview that there are “a lot of practical aspects to how these new voters will come online and what procedures would take place.”
Although he did not support the amendment, Galvano promised “whatever we (the Legislature) determine our role is, if any, is going to be to fulfill the will of the people in a diligent manner.”
House Speaker Jose Oliva also said he wanted to ensure voters’ wishes are carried out.
“I think it (the amendment) was rather broad but I think that the intent of the people was to make sure that those people who have paid their price to society for certain crimes were able to become a participant in our electoral process again. That part of it is pretty clear,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said. “I think that, like everything on the fringes, there is ‘what constitutes this’ and ‘what constitutes that.’ … I don’t in any way plan to either slow-play that or restrain it in any way.”
State elections officials currently send lists of people who have been convicted of felonies to county supervisors, who then remove them from the voting rolls. County officials are hoping the state will expand that process to identify people who have been convicted of felonies but who are eligible to vote under the amendment.
The new system should involve “one more step” for Matthews’ agency, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said.
“They need to verify that a person has completed all the terms of their probation --- fines, restitution, whatever it is --- and then that would be a green light,” Latimer told the News Service. “It just seems to me they need to change a little bit of their process.”
Matthews repeatedly pointed out that voters now must affirm that they are eligible to vote when they fill out registration forms.
“That is no different. That doesn’t change,” after the amendment goes into effect next month, she said.
But Manatee County elections supervisor Mike Bennett, a former state senator, also pushed the state to come up with a uniform method of interpreting the constitutional amendment.
“We all have people coming into our offices right now, saying ‘I’m here to vote,’ and we have to explain to them what the issue is,” Bennett told Matthews. “I don’t need 67 explanations. I would rather have your office clarify to the public why this is not going to happen on Jan. 8.”
But Howard Simon, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which was one of the backers of Amendment 4, maintains that the amendment is self-implementing. The onus is on government officials to confirm the accuracy of information provided by individuals registering to vote, Simon said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“So I’m not sure how much guidance the supervisors need from the state, and I don’t think there’s any role at all for the Legislature,” Simon told the News Service. “If a Florida citizen has completed all the terms of their sentence and can honestly affirm that, on Jan. 8, they are eligible to register to vote, there is nothing that the state can do or should do to delay that.”
--- News Service staff writer Christine Sexton contributed to this report.