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Thomas Kennedy: Automatic voter registration should be a priority in Florida

Floridians just made history by restoring voting rights to over 1.4 million people with prior felony convictions who completed their sentences.

With the passage of Amendment 4, Florida approved the largest re-enfranchisement of voters in the United States in over five decades and dealt a significant blow against the racist holdover policies of the Jim Crow South.

Casting a vote is the most basic right in any democratic society. The system hinges on the idea that every person of legal age can have their say in determining political representation. The restoration of voting rights through Amendment 4 will help improve and ensure a healthier democracy in Florida.

What’s the next step to continue building on that success? We need to fight to implement automatic voter registration in Florida.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia already approved automatic voter registration. The way it works is by streamlining the process in which eligible citizens can register to vote through two simple changes in the way our country traditionally registers voters.

First, it makes voter registration an opt-out option instead of opt-in. When eligible citizens interact with government agencies they are registered to vote or have their existing registration information updated unless they explicitly refuse. Second, it allows those government agencies to transfer voter registration information electronically to election officials instead of using paper forms. This improves efficiency and saves money.

In 2018 alone, 20 states introduced legislation to implement or expand automatic registration. Although a legislative approach should not be ignored by advocates in Florida, I believe this is a cause worthy of another ballot initiative effort to amend the state constitution. In a healthy democracy, we should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder.

Unfortunately, this past Election Day in Florida, we observed lines in Black and Brown neighborhoods that lasted several hours. Hundreds of voters showing up to early voting sites, believing it was their assigned Election Day polling site and being turned away with no clear direction of where to go in order to cast their vote. People were turned away from their precincts and not offered election protection assistance. There were broken voting machines at busy polling locations.

Voters who did not sign up to vote by mail were forced to use provisional ballots as a result.

Electoral reform is badly needed in Florida and after the irregularities that were observed this cycle, there seems to be some bipartisan appetite to enact legislation in the Florida House. Incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva and Minority Leader Kionne McGhee have expressed willingness although OIiva expressed resistance to some of McGhee’s proposals, which included automatic voter registration.

However, we cannot depend on Tallahassee politicians to break through the partisan gridlock and get something done on this issue. Just like it was for Amendment 4, we need to take this issue straight to the citizens of Florida and collect the required petitions to place this on the ballot if need be.

Floridians from all sides of the political spectrum came together to ensure that the 60 percent threshold necessary for the passage of amendment 4. We did the right thing as a state in returning voting rights to people with former felony convictions who have paid their debts to society. We should build on that success by continuing to expand democracy.

Automatic voter registration is the next logical step for Florida.

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Thomas Kennedy is the Political Director for FLIC Votes and a communications fellow for Center for Community Change Action. He tweets from @Tomaskenn.

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