The just-passed Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, better known as Amendment 4, specifically excludes those convicted of murder.
But there’s significant disagreement about what that means.
Forgiving interpretations of ballot language say only those convicted of first-degree murder still face a lifetime voting ban. But a broad reading of Florida’s homicide statutes includes those convicted of, say, partial birth abortions.
“It’s an important point we have to wrestle with here,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican.
Neil Volz, a board member with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, testified Tuesday before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that drafters of Amendment 4 intended to exclude those convicted of first-degree murder.
The intent, he said, was only to leave out felons convicted of the most severe crimes. “This came from years of conversation with voters,” he said. The amendment also excludes those convicted of felony sex offenses.
But Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews said Florida’s murder statute covers a much wider range of crimes. The chapter of law includes everything from doctor-assisted suicides to partial birth abortions, both second-degree felonies.
“Do you include partial birth abortion in there?” she said in the committee hearing. “Is attempted murder in there?”
Nearly 65 percent of voters in November approved restoring voting rights for felons, but lawmakers say the details of exclusions get dicey.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, balked at Volz’s wide-ranging interpretation of which murderers still can’t vote.
A former assistant state attorney, Pizzo handled cases where the state sought a first-degree charge but jurors rendered a second-degree murder verdict, sometimes based on issues that had little to do with intent.
He found it unlikely most voters believe an exclusion of murderers only covers those convicted of killing in the first degree.
“I’m a huge advocate of Amendment 4,” he said. “But the will of the electorate is murder and sexual offenses are excluded.”
Brandes asked the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to provide material that specifically stated only those convicted of first-degree murder be excluded.
Implementation of the amendment remains a complicated task lawmakers must contend with this session.
Paul Lux, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said every county in Florida to his knowledge has started registering ex-felons to vote.
But there’s little vetting to see if former convicts indeed completed any required restitution to the state, or to see if convictions were for crimes excluded in Amendment 4.
Voters sign a pledge, and until – or unless – the Division of Elections informs local offices the registration should be invalidated after the fact, the voters will appear on the rolls.
Some communities like Miami-Dade County made clear no one will be prosecuted for erroneously registering to vote in error. But Volz said the Restoration Coalition encourages those who remain unsure to delay registration until they know if they are eligible to vote.