Questions asked about Amendment 4
BY DARA KAM
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE ‒ A key Senate panel on Tuesday began grappling with how to carry out a constitutional amendment that “automatically” restores the right to vote to felons who’ve completed their sentences.
At the outset of the meeting, Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Keith Perry vowed not to have “any kind of hindrance or roadblocks” in implementing Amendment 4, approved by nearly 65 percent of voters in November. At the top of the to-do list for the committee: figure out the definition of “murder.”
The amendment granted “automatic” restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.” But a 90-minute Criminal Justice Committee panel discussion Tuesday revealed confusion about the “murder” exception.
“It’s an important point that we have to wrestle with here,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is on the committee and chairs the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
County elections officials ‒ who use a variety of databases to verify voters’ eligibility ‒ are relying on the state to flag people who are ineligible to vote after they’ve registered. But state Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews said her office needs the Legislature to clarify what types of convictions the murder exclusion captures, noting that the homicide statute includes a broad swath of crimes.
“It is a question about, do you include partial birth abortion is in there, attempted murder is in there,” Matthews said. “We have gotten questions from supervisors as to what these terms mean.” Matthews said state officials “wish to apply the law uniformly and consistently” regarding the murder and felony sexual offense exclusions.
‘Murder means murder’
Proponents of Amendment 4, as the measure appeared on the November ballot, maintain that voters intended for the exclusion to apply only to felons convicted of first-degree murder.
“Murder means murder,” Neil Voltz, political director of the Florida Restoration of Rights Coalition, told the committee. The coalition played a major role in the amendment’s passage. “We believe the text of the language matters.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Brandes, who will carry the implementation legislation, indicated lawmakers aren’t likely to go that far.
“I think the Legislature, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle here, believe that that is not what the voters intended,” said Brandes, calling the murder definition “the only major point of contention” between proponents of the amendment and lawmakers. “I have to believe that, if we have this broad swath of people who are (excluded because of) felony sexual offenses, that there should probably be an equally broad swath of individuals under the definition of murder.”
But Desmond Meade, the president of the coalition, said focus groups and polls conducted for years before the proposal went on the ballot found voters “have a problem with a person that was convicted of first-degree murder, people that commit rape, people that commit sexual offenses against children.”
“That was what the voters throughout the state of Florida have consistently said, and they’re the ones that guided the drafting of the language,” Meade said after the meeting. “So it’s not our opinion. It’s what the voters said they wanted.”
‘Completion’ also questioned
Exactly what the amendment means about felons’ completion of their terms of
Some proponents believe the amendment does not require full payment of restitution, because it is not specifically mentioned in the amendment. Others maintain restitution should be considered a component of a sentence if it is included in a judge’s sentencing order. But finding out whether felons have paid restitution can be difficult, particularly with new privacy protections for victims included in another amendment, known as “Marsy’s Law,” that also passed in November.
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, who is president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said lawmakers could consider creating a clearinghouse that could help elections officials and people seeking to find out if they’ve completed all the terms of their sentences and are therefore eligible to vote.
It is estimated that up to 800,000 Floridians could be eligible to have their voting rights restored under the amendment, and another 50,000 convicted felons are released from prison each year.