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Is Florida's Amendment Restoring Felons' Voting Rights 'Self-Executing'?


To another political standstill - this one in Florida - The state was one of the last remaining to automatically restrict voting rights of convicted felons. But in November, Floridians overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment granting voting rights back to certain felons. Now the incoming governor, some state lawmakers and election officials say they need to weigh in before any changes go into effect. WLRN's Danny Rivero has more.

DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: On paper, the new amendment could inject over a million new voters into one of the nation's biggest battleground states overnight. As the amendment is written, most people convicted of a felony should be able to register to vote on January 8. The only people excluded are those convicted of sex crimes or murder. But now there's increasing questions about, how is this amendment actually going to get implemented?

HOWARD SIMON: It says that voting rights shall be restored. I don't know what is unclear about that, what could be unclear about that.

RIVERO: Howard Simon just retired this November but was the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida for decades. He helped draft the ballot amendment and calls it self-executing, meaning no one has to touch it.

SIMON: We worked a year and a half on this language intentionally to say that there is no role for politicians, people in the legislature, people in the governor's office, people in the secretary of state's office.

RIVERO: But some Florida Republicans have a different take on that. Take the governor-elect, Ron DeSantis, who ran against the amendment. He told the podcast he doesn't think it's self-executing.

RON DESANTIS: There's going to be a law that we're going to have to pass in order to comply with that amendment.

RIVERO: For non-Floridians, there's a political backdrop here. Several times in the last decade, a citizen ballot initiative has overwhelmingly passed. But then the Republican-dominated state government steps in and tries to override the will of the voters, only to have the courts reject their proposal. And some activists are scared that could happen this time around. And meanwhile, felon voters wouldn't be able to vote in local elections, which are happening as early as February.

DENNIS BAXLEY: I think part of it is sort of a panic that we have a hard date in this thing.

RIVERO: Republican State Senator Dennis Baxley is the chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee. Any legislation about how this gets implemented will pass by his desk. He says lawmakers are absolutely not going to kick the ball around.

BAXLEY: The president of the Senate has already clearly stated we're not going to slow walk anything. We're going to implement what the people voted for. But we want to do it in a way that works.

RIVERO: Baxley says potential issues are in the details, like how exactly the counties will parse out sex offenders and convicted murderers. County election officials haven't gotten guidance from the administration of outgoing Governor Rick Scott about how to interpret who can vote. Baxley says that's where lawmakers might need to step in, to get the whole state on the same page.

BAXLEY: So that you don't have 67 supervisors of election interpreting it different ways as to how they validate this person's eligibility.

RIVERO: Tranassa White is from Pensacola on the Florida panhandle. She has a felony conviction. But she says, on January 8, she's going to walk to the elections office and register to vote.

TRANASSA WHITE: It is very vital that we go out the day of in numbers to show the world that, you know, we're here to make it right again. Our voice was silent when we were convicted. So this allows us to speak again.

RIVERO: In just over a week, we'll learn if that's as simple as it sounds. For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danny Rivero