By Jim Bleyer
Florida will be taking two giant leaps forward in order to erase its stigma as the poster child for botched elections.
The timing of the reforms remains nebulous, however.
Responsibility for the revamping falls to Governor Ron DeSantis and a Republican-controlled Florida Legislature.
Don’t expect immediate action: both reforms are widely seen as boosting Democratic chances in future elections.
The issues: the overwhelmingly approved statewide ballot initiative permitting released felons to register and vote, and the state-mandated deadline for counting mail-in ballots. Ex-felon voting rights passed in November with 65 percent of the vote; 2.5 million mail-in ballots were cast but not all counted in the general election.
The felon voting rights amendment takes effect Jan. 8. but DeSantis has asserted that he wants the state Legislature to pass bills with “implementing language” for him to sign into law.
Ion Sancho, former Leon County Supervisor of Elections and a nationally-recognized expert on voting policy and procedure, told Tampa Bay Beat that DeSantis’ slow walking implementation of the constitutional amendment could have serious consequences.
“Basically, the Florida Division of Elections is putting a hold on its responsibility,” Sancho explained. “With the governor demanding legislation for implementation, it could be that the Division won’t act until May.”
The “hold” will certainly affect important, local spring elections in the cities of Tampa (nonpartisan) and Jacksonville, Sancho, a Democrat, went on. Ex-felons will be deprived of their voting rights in those mayoral and council races.
In other words to the Division, governor, and Legislature: Do Your Jobs!
This matter could be pulled into federal court in Tallahassee, said Sancho, where Judge Mark Walker has a history of ruling in favor of inclusiveness when it comes to elections issues.
The Division of Elections should be at work looking at the amendment’s ramifications, putting together a database, and processing registration applications sent by the Supervisor of Elections in each of Florida’s 67 counties, Sancho said.
Tampa Bay Beat notes that Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer has begun accepting paperwork that will result in suffrage for former felons.
Here is the statement from Gerri Kramer, Latimer’s official flack:
“It’s our understanding that Amendment 4 goes into effect January 8, as per state law, and we’ve received no information from the state that says otherwise.
Our office is ministerial, and our process will not change on Jan. 8 when the amendment goes into effect. Once we receive the voter registration application, we process the application and it goes to the state for verification and acceptance. Felons who qualify under the new amendment are responsible for knowing if they are in compliance with the amendment and filling out the voter registration application truthfully.”
In Polk County, Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said her office will continue to handle voter applications in the same manner as always.
“There won’t be a change here at the local level,” she said. “It used to be — before Jan. 8 (2019) — you had to have your rights restored by the governor and cabinet. Now the right to vote has been restored by meeting the criteria in Amendment 4. That’s where the change is; the change really isn’t in my office.
“Anyone who registers to vote must fill out a form including the phrase, ‘I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored’.”
Both Latimer and Edwards said it’s up to the Florida Division of Elections to further validate and approve the registrations.
Black people, who are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated, will benefit the most. In 2016, more than 418,000 black people out of a black voting-age population of more than 2.3 million, or 17.9 percent of potential black voters in Florida, had finished sentences but couldn’t vote due to a felony record, according to the Sentencing Project.
Voters’ infatuation with mail-in ballots is causing a major problem as Florida lags other states in coping with the dilemma.
The remedy lies with the legislature, Sancho asserted.
Florida has had explosive growth in mail-in ballots with approximately 2 1/2 million of them used in the 2018 general election. Not all of them were counted.
The problem: By law, Florida has 5 days to process mail-in ballots. The timeline is ludicrous, Sancho observed, because of the state’s burgeoning population, especially in the predominantly Democratic urban areas where mail-in ballots flood elections offices.
He listed the mail-in deadlines for other states: California, 28;days; Arizona, 21; Oregon, 14.
”The larger counties obviously have the problem and it’s the Legislature’s responsibility to enact a remedy that conforms to the third most populous state in the country.”