A well-functioning democracy depends on its citizens having the right and opportunity to vote. Not only is the right to vote guaranteed under the United States Constitution, but it is a moral imperative in a free and democratic society.
Florida was one of only four states that prevented convicted felons from voting. That changed in November 2018 when over five million Floridians voted in favor Amendment 4 to our state constitution. The Amendment restored the voting rights of certain eligible convicted felons who completed their sentences.
After the Legislature passed a law interpreting and implementing the Amendment, we led a team that created a detailed plan to help returning citizens obtain the paperwork they needed to register in collaboration with Public Defender Carlos Martinez, Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel Eugene Zenobi, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, Chief Judge Bertila Soto, Senator Jason Pizzo, and House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee, with the support of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Our plan established procedures to address people who could not afford to fulfill their financial obligations. Some people questioned why a State Attorney would take such a leadership role. My answers were simple. First and foremost, the right to vote should not be conditioned on a person’s ability to pay. Second, individuals who have completed their sentences to the extent they can, should have the opportunity to participate in our political processes. Third, restoring the rights of returning citizens is Smart Justice.
Prior to Amendment 4’s passage, a Miami-Dade Grand Jury investigated the potential effects of Amendment 4. As the Grand Jury found, research demonstrates that returning citizens whose civil rights are restored reoffend at a lower rate than those whose rights are not restored. Thus, there are public safety benefits to reintegrating these individuals into society, rather than ostracizing them. Simply stated, restoring their voting rights has the potential to make communities safer, save tax dollars, and allow more citizens’ voices to be heard. In order to make the process as easy as possible, we created forms for people to complete, including an Affidavit of Indigency, available at www.sao.com. We modified our plan after the Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion clarifying some terms, but our commitment to fulfilling the public mandate continues to guide us to this day.
I was very moved last November when 17 individuals came to a court session where I and all of the other stakeholders named above joined together to restore their right to vote and show the community how easy our process was. This event was so significant that singer-songwriter John Legend made it a point to attend in person and participate in what turned out to be true celebration of citizenship for these returning citizens.
I have always believed that a citizen’s right to vote is the foundation upon which our democracy rests. It would be unconscionable to deny a person the right to vote simply because they cannot afford to pay fees and costs. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and others are all Floridians who should have a voice in how their government functions. Those that have completed their sentence, our returning citizens, should have the same opportunity.
The passage of Amendment 4 reflected the will of the 5.6 million people who voted in favor of it and opened a door allowing 1.4 million Floridians a chance to contribute to their community. Now is the time to take advantage of that opportunity.