Florida voters will decide in November whether former felons may join their ranks at the polls. The referendum on proposed Amendment 4 will reveal whether Sunshine State residents are willing to grant free speech, in the form of a vote, to lawbreakers usually seen as undeserving.
Floridians for a Fair Democracy collected nearly 800,000 signatures to get the measure added to the ballot. An estimated 1.67 million felons—10 percent of the state’s voting age population—would become eligible to vote if it passes. The amendment would not restore other constitutional rights such as gun possession.
The vote could have further political consequences for poor districts.
“Many convicted felons come from the same inner-city neighborhoods,” attorney Estelle Rogers wrote in a 2014 paper for Project Vote. If many people in an area have no right to vote, its political power is weakened, including the “ability to gain political representation and influence.”
Florida is one of a handful of states—along with Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia—that permanently ban felons from voting except by special appeal to the governor or a committee. Some 36 states only ban ex-felons from voting while they’re in prison or while on probation or parole.
Amendment 4 would not give voting rights back to felons convicted as sex offenders or murderers, revealing a public will to permanently ban certain criminals. The ministry Prison Fellowship holds a similar position: “Only restrictions to personal liberty that have a demonstrated and substantial link to protecting public safety should be permissible.”
Indiana pastor—and ex-felon—William Bumphus told me punishing people with prison time may be just, but released felons “are returning citizens, and as such they should be afforded the same rights as other citizens” as a part of being restored to society. Converted 39 years ago “from a life of crime to life in Christ” during his fourth stint in prison, Bumphus now leads men’s Bible studies every Tuesday in Indianapolis and works in prisons as a board member of the Coalition of Prison Evangelists.
This month, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled Florida’s current regulations for restoring felons to voting status violate the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He relied on Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s opinions that view voting as a form of protected self-expression.
But a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed a provision of the 14th Amendment giving states the right to disenfranchise people convicted of rebellion or other crimes such as felonies.
Even so, since 1996, states have gradually moved away from total disenfranchisement of ex-criminals. Thirty states have loosened laws to restore voter rights to ex-felons. Activists still say the varied state regulations mean those released from prison often don’t understand the process or don’t realize they can resume voting.
Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, approved rules in 2007 to permit more than 100,000 nonviolent felons to regain their voting rights without the then-required hearing. But Republican Gov. Rick Scott abandoned the policy in 2011, citing the need for evidence that felons have rehabilitated.
Only Maine, Vermont, and California allow criminals to cast ballots while in prison. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a state law in 2016 permitting felons in county jails to vote. State Sen. Patricia Bates decried the more-the-merrier attitude to voting, telling the Los Angeles Times it could mean the prison population becomes the decisive factor, especially in local elections.