Florida restores voting rights to 1.5 million citizens, which might also decrease crime

Voters in Florida approved a ballot measure on Tuesday that restores voting rights to citizens with felony convictions once they have completed their full sentence.

The newly elected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis opposed the measure called Amendment 4. But more than 64 percent of Florida voters voted in favor of the amendment – well above the 60 percent support that was needed for it to pass. This means that 1.5 million U.S. citizens in Florida automatically regained their right to vote, increasing the number of eligible voters in Florida by more than 10 percent overnight.

My research finds that when Virginia restored voting rights, ex-offenders became more trusting of government and the criminal justice system. These attitudes are known to make it easier for citizens to re-enter society after being released from prison and also decrease their tendency to commit additional crimes.

The results from my study in Virginia might give a glimpse of what could be expected in Florida, now that Amendment 4 has passed.

Florida votes to change its felony disenfranchisement laws

Before the amendment passed, more than 6 million U.S. citizens did not have the right to vote due to state laws that limited the voting rights of people who have been convicted of a felony.

These felon disenfranchisement laws vary between states. Most states automatically restore voting rights to people after they are released from prison, or after completion of parole or probation.

But Florida was the most strict. Before the November 2018 election, Florida was one of only four states that had no automatic process for restoring voting rights.

Under Florida’s old system, a citizen with a felony conviction could only have their voting rights restored by applying to the Executive Clemency Board – a four-member panel including both the governor and the attorney general. The clemency board was allowed to reject applications for any reason, and was known to ask applicants questions about their family, religion, and even traffic violations.

Under outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, the clemency board approved fewer than 2,000 restorations of voting rights over six years. They had a backlog of more than 10,000 applications.

Given these strict laws, more than 1.6 million voting-age citizens in Florida did not have the right to vote – including more than 1 out of every 5 black citizens statewide.

Amendment 4 changed the Florida State Constitution.

Though the newly elected DeSantis opposed Amendment 4, his Executive Clemency Board will no longer have power over voting rights for all people previously convicted of felonies. Instead, voting rights will now be automatically restored at the end of an individual’s probation period. This change applies to all felonies except for murder and sex crimes.

New research from Virginia

In Virginia, an ex-offender can only regain their right to vote if the governor signs an executive order personally restoring their civil rights.

Typically, previous governors waited for people to apply and considered individual applications for restoration with varying scrutiny. But in 2016 and 2017, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe made the unprecedented move to proactively restore voting rights to more than 150,000 ex-offenders – more than any other governor in U.S. history.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. AP Photo/Steve Helber
I went to Virginia during the November 2017 statewide election, shortly after many new restoration orders had been processed. I recruited a sample of 93 citizens with felony convictions to complete two surveys – one before the election, and one after.

More than 70 percent of these individuals already had their voting rights restored by the governor, but many of them were not aware of their newly restored rights.