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Learn how a battle over ex-felons’ voting rights could determine the 2020 election

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By Roey Hadar

Gwen Ifill Fellow

In a recent CNN presidential candidate town hall, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was asked if he believed that ex-felons and currently incarcerated people should have the right to vote—including sex offenders or the convicted Boston Marathon bomber.

“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes, even for terrible people,” Sanders said.

Florida addressed that question last year by passing Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that restores the right to vote for ex-felons. The amendment did not allow for people in prison or people convicted of murder or sexual offenses to vote but granted voting rights to hundreds of thousands of people.

In a new digital series, we’ll take a deeper look at battles over voting rights by talking with public media journalists in states that are both campaign battlegrounds and epicenters of the voting rights debate.

Daniel Rivero, a reporter and producer at WLRN, a public radio and television covering Miami and South Florida, has covered the battle around Amendment 4 and its implementation and the 2018 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate election recounts.

Read the interview with him below to find out more about how the fight over ex-felons’ voting rights could swing the 2020 election.

Florida, it seems like, has repeatedly been a battleground over elections, voting, and voting rights. You think back to 2000 with the presidential recount, even this year with the delays in the ballot counting and the president accusing local officials of fraud in Florida. 

Florida is kind of a microcosm of the entire country. We have the huge Midwestern population, we have a lot of northeasterners from New York and Boston. We have a lot of immigration from Latin America. North Florida is actually deep south, but we have all the divisions you would find anywhere in the country, all in one state.

In addition to that, we're just kind of ground zero. We've been in this position of being where the decisions get made for so long, it's just the political reality for us locally as well as nationally. In the last couple of decades we've seen the Republican Party just completely dominate the state, but at the same time doing it with an incredibly slim margin. So, statewide, there's more registered Democrats than Republicans, but it's become the rarest of things for a Democrat to win statewide office. It's just where we are. I don't know how else to describe it. We're just very, very divided.

Florida substantially expanded voting rights by passing Amendment 4. How has the implementation of that gone?
The day after this Amendment 4 passed, I actually went and interviewed the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, because Florida has a history with how the state government handles citizen-driven ballot initiatives, and it's not a very pretty history.

Florida had a fair redistricting ballot initiative that was citizen-driven which the legislature completely derailed and it was only when they lost some lawsuits that they actually had to abide by it. We had a huge Everglades restoration citizen ballot initiative that passed, completely derailed by the Republican dominated legislature. We had a medical marijuana citizen ballot initiative that was passed, completely derailed by the Republican legislature only after a bunch of lawsuits were filed and lost, did the legislature say they’ll do it.

Considering all these things, it was pretty clear to me that there was going to be pushback. You had the governor, the attorney general running against Amendment 4 and then it passed, so I couldn't assume that they were going to implement it with no problems.

I did some early reporting about some things in Amendment 4 that were a little bit ambiguous. What people voted on said, as long as someone completed all the terms of their sentence, they can vote again, but it never defined what the ‘term of the sentence’ is.

Florida charges people with sometimes astronomical fines for certain felony convictions and the vast majority of the time, those fines are not paid. I looked back in the last five years and found it was over a billion dollars that was charged to Floridians and over 80% of that has never been paid because the people are too poor to pay it.

The legislature’s interpretation is that all these fines and fees need to be paid before someone can regain their right to vote. People are calling it a poll tax because the only thing standing in between you and your right to vote might be the fact that you owe a couple of thousand dollars because of a crime that you've committed years ago.

2020 is the big focus, especially for a lot of people nationally. Former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum said he’ll try to register a million Floridians to vote and President Trump is likely to be campaigning there a lot. How can we expect the questions around this to affect the 2020 election and national politics?

I think the short answer is, for better or worse, this plays into some of the concerns of the Democratic Party and it's a rallying point for people who are already politically active. You have the emergence of Stacey Abrams in Georgia, who ran and very narrowly lost the Governor race there and she says, "I lost this race because of voter suppression." And this question of voter suppression and about how to control who's voting, how to purge, when to purge voter rolls, access to voting sites, has become a really big rallying point for Democrats.

And it's also in many ways, and places, become kind of a liability for Republicans. There's differing visions on this and there's also a lot of misinformation when you have certain Republicans saying, without any factual basis, there's undocumented immigrants that are voting in crazy numbers that we need to crack down on this. We just know that's not a fact.

So, I think even though Florida passed this bill that, according to the people that wrote it, is one of the biggest expansions of voting rights in the last century, we're seeing the potential that the impact of that can be completely blunted. The prospect of that happening can be used as a rallying point in itself, even though it's not the desired outcome. But you can point to it and say, "Look, we passed this. 65% of Floridians voted for this to happen. This is what we wanted and look what they're doing. We need you guys to rally for us. Look what they're doing."

I think that is how it's going to be used in the state and also nationally, because, like I said, this issue of voter registration or voter suppression, is becoming really partisan all across the country and this might well become a big case study in that.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.