Felons' Voting Rights Restoration Should Be Delayed, Says Florida Governor-Elect

by | December 18, 2018 AT 10:30 AM

By Michael Van Sickler

In an interview with the Palm Beach Post's George Bennett, Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis said that Amendment 4, which was approved by 64.6 percent (or 5.2 million) of Florida voters, shouldn't go into effect as intended by the people who wrote the ballot measure.

Instead, DeSantis said the amendment, which would restore voting rights for most ex-felons who have served their sentences, should take effect after state lawmakers pass "implementing language" in a bill that is then sent to him for his signature.

That means at least a two month delay in restoring felon rights. Advocates of Amendment 4, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say the measure should go into effect on Jan. 8, but session doesn't start until March 5. This could deny voting rights for many in Tampa hoping to cast a ballot in the mayor's race.

DeSantis sounded blasé about the delay, framing it as a mere formality.

"They're going to be able to do that in March," DeSantis told Bennett, referring to the 60-day legislative session. "There's no way you can go through this session without implementing it."

Howard Simon, the ACLU's former executive director who helped draft Amendment 4, said that's a misreading of the measure's intent.

DeSantis' job "is to facilitate the wishes of the voters, not frustrate and delay what the voters overwhelmingly called for," Simon told the Times/Herald. "The new language of our Constitution goes into effect on Jan. 8 -- and that becomes the highest law of the land. The governor doesn't have the right to set aside the Constitution."

Another one of the measure's authors, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, weighed in, advising DeSantis that no legislation is required.

"People from all walks of life overwhelmingly voted to support Amendment 4, and the simple premise that when a debt is paid it is paid," said the group's executive director, Desmond Meade. "Amendment 4 was and remains about people, not politics. It is about people like the veteran in Tampa who is ready to vote this March in the mayor's race, or the pastor in Jacksonville who has been waiting for years to do the same in her hometown. We are confident that the language is clear and that this Amendment does not require enabling legislation."

DeSantis' assumption that a bill could be written, passed and signed in early March also seems a bit hopeful.

Though Florida's Department of State says that a person who completes their sentence should be able to register to vote, it doesn't sound like lawmakers have reached anything close to a consensus. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairs a key committee that any implementing bill would need to clear, and he sounded confused about what do next.

"How do you evaluate eligibility?" Baxley told the Times/Herald last week. "I still have some questions ... What were the terms of their sentence? Do they have to meet probation? Did they complete their debt to society or not?"

The fear among supporters of Amendment 4 is that Republicans who opposed the measure, including DeSantis and Senate President Bill Galvano, will make it harder for felons to regain the right to vote.

Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville issued a news release criticizing DeSantis for his comments.

"Once again, disenfranchisement and voter suppression rear their ugly heads from within the governor's office," Gibson is quoted as saying in the statement. "It appears Governor-elect DeSantis is following the lead of (Rick Scott),  whose efforts to purge legitimate voters yielded little more than embarrassing results."

Liza McClenaghan, Florida state chair of Common Cause, a voter advocacy group, questioned why the state would seemingly impose new road blocks after voters have spoken.

"Why did we have a constitutional amendment in the first place?" she told the Times/Herald last week. "Because the Legislature wouldn't deal with the issue. The people took care of that by creating a self-implementing amendment. It's a curious situation."

Some took to Twitter to lodge their complaints.

There seems to be some confusion from lawmakers as to the complex nature of #Amendment4 "implementation"

In anticipation of this, we spent MONTHS creating this VERY intricate flowchart. It's not rocket science, but we can ping @NASA if necessary! #flapol #sayfie pic.twitter.com/XijIEbMHZY

-- LWV of Florida (@LWVFlorida) December 13, 2018

UNREAL! The amendment is clear @RonDeSantisFL and so are our Florida voters who voted for Amendment 4! We must restore the rights of 1.4M Floridians; stop dragging your feet! #sayfie #flapol https://t.co/DjtGwnuChp

-- Rep. Anna V. Eskamani  (@AnnaForFlorida) December 13, 2018

OH HELL NO: Florida's Ron DeSantis says Amendment 4 should be delayed until he signs bill from lawmakers https://t.co/drOOHA2WaQ

-- Juan Escalante (@JuanSaaa) December 13, 2018

Restoration of Rights Amendment is self-executing and should automatically go into effect. Like with medical marijuana, state lawmakers will only screw it up, or worse stifle will of voters. ?@ACLU? ?@HispanicFed?? ??@latinojustice? https://t.co/R1H1rQ5i97

-- Darren Soto (@DarrenSoto) December 13, 2018

(c)2018 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)