Panel finds no easy answers on costs of voter rights restoration

vote felon (Large)

A state panel struggled Monday to figure out a price tag for the proposed Florida Voter Restoration Amendment, which would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

The Financial Impact Estimating Conference heard testimony from a variety of state criminal justice agencies indicating it might be hard to nail down what the amendment would cost. The panel planned to reconvene next week for additional study.

Amy Baker, coordinator for the Legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the Legislature’s policy-analysis arm, said lawmakers might have to clarify the meaning of key terms.

“We’ve got several issues we are struggling with,” Baker said during a break in proceedings.

The proposed amendment’s ballot summary says: “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.”

State elections officials certified in September that supporters had collected 71,000 petition signatures to place the initiative on the ballot, pending review by Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Supreme Court. It could go on the ballot in 2018.

The budget implications could prove significant, particularly if the amendment applied retroactively. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says the state has returned more than 1.1 million felony convictions since 1950, not including federal convictions and those in other states against offenders now living in Florida.

The Florida Commission on Offender Review, which monitors offenders following their release, says roughly 375,000 already have secured reinstatement of their civil rights.

That leaves perhaps 600,000 potential applicants under the amendment, less offenders who have died or moved away, Baker said.

The conference estimates that perhaps 35 percent of those offenders might seek reinstatement of their voting rights, based on academic research.

That would still leave a sizeable “bubble” of offenders, she said.

“There’s a lot of caveats about these numbers,” Baker said. “We think it gives a good order of magnitude.”

One question is whether to pre-clear offenders regardless of whether they seek the right to vote. Another, cheaper, alternative is to wait until they file voting registration cards. But the Legislature “would not necessarily gravitate toward the low-cost solution,” she said. “They’ll do whatever policy decision they think best.”

Additional questions involve legal definitions for felony sexual offenses or murder — might that latter include manslaughter or attempted, members of the panel wondered.

And does “complete all terms of their sentences” include victim restitution? Orders to repay court costs and fees? And what if those orders have been converted into civil judgments for nonpayment — would that bar an ex-felon from recovering his or her voting rights?

“It is likely the Legislature is going to have to get involved in determining what the different terms mean,” Baker said.

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.


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