This fall voters will have 13 constitutional amendments to wade through on the ballot, but Amendment 4 should get special focus. It represents a rare opportunity to rectify a grievous provision in the Florida Constitution, which permanently revokes the voting rights of anyone convicted of a felony. The amendment reached the ballot after a citizen drive gathered more than 1 million signatures, but a new poll shows that many Floridians are unsure about it.
Amendment 4 would automatically restore voting rights for all felons (excluding those convicted of murder and felony sex crimes) who have completed their sentence, including any probation and restitution. It needs 60 percent voter approval to pass. A new poll commissioned by the Florida Chamber of Commerce found just 40 percent of voters in favor and 17 percent opposed.
But the most illuminating figure was this: 43 percent of voters were undecided. That leaves a lot educating to do between now and November to convince Floridians that passing this amendment and automatically restoring voting rights for felons is the right thing to do. Here are four issues to consider.
1. It would reduce recidivism.
That’s the rate of criminals who re-offend and return to prison. In Florida, the recidivism rate hovers around 25 percent. When then-Gov. Charlie Crist instituted a streamlined clemency process in 2007 that restored voting rights for more than 155,000 felons, their rate of recidivism was just 12.4 percent. When Gov. Rick Scott took office and the state Cabinet in 2011 imposed a 5-year wait to be considered for clemency and onerous requirements, the rate shot back up. People who serve their time, pay restitution and work to re-enter society shouldn’t continue to be marginalized forever as criminals. That just makes them more likely to commit another crime.
2. It would save money. A lot of money.
A lower recidivism rate means spending less money to keep fewer people to in prison. A recent study by a Republican-leaning research firm estimated that 3,500 fewer inmates would enter the prison system annually, saving Florida taxpayers $70 million. That also means money for prison construction, expansion and repairs can go to other priorities, and it eases the burden on the court system.
3. What about carjackers and other violent criminals?
Most people who have a felony conviction, including for some violent crimes, automatically would get back their right to vote. While that may be a concern for some voters, the status quo is doing serious damage. Scott requires every applicant to make a personal appeal to the state Clemency Board, and even then the decision seems arbitrary. During Scott’s eight years, just over 4,000 clemency cases have been approved — as a backlog of more than 10,000 has piled up. That leaves people waiting hopelessly on the sidelines even when they have demonstrated a desire to re-enter civic life.
4. Florida’s next governor could make the system better — or worse.
Crist and the Cabinet voted in 2007 to automatically restore some civil rights to some felons. Scott has set Florida back by making people beg for their rights, which a federal judge said remain "locked in a dark crypt" in striking down the scheme as unconstitutional. The four Democrats running for governor all favor Amendment 4, but Republican Adam Putnam does not support it. His Republican primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, has said only that he will study the matter. Recent history shows that this important issue should not be left to the whims of politicians. Amending the Florida Constitution would right this wrong once and for all.