Registering “Returning Citizens” in Florida

The passage of Amendment 4 in Florida in November 2018 was historic. Excluding convicted murderers and sexual offenders, the Voting Restoration Amendment automatically restores the voting rights of citizens with prior felony convictions who served their sentence (including probation, parole, and any fines, fees, or restitution).

Eligible ex-felons were permitted to register to vote starting on January 8, 2019.  Some estimates placed the potential number of ex-felons who might register in the Sunshine State as high as 1.4 million people, or nearly one-tenth of the current registered voters in Florida.  Scholars estimate that as many as one-in-four black men in Florida have been disenfranchised by a law that dates back to the state’s 1868 Florida Constitution.

In January, reporters flocked to the offices of the state’s 67 Supervisors of Elections to interview newly registering voters—including those locked out from the democratic process for decades or who had never experienced the franchise.

According to the Florida Secretary of State, more than 53,000 Floridians registered to vote in January 2019.

Although not all of the new registrants had a felony conviction, was the registration rate in January higher than expected?

Although the number of new registrants in January 2019 exceeded the number from December 2018, the uptick was likely not solely the result of a surge in ex-felons registering to vote.  Indeed, compared to new registrations in previous years, the numbers are not dramatically higher–roughly 49,000 voters registered in January 2018; nearly 38,000 registered in in January 2017; and over 50,000 registered in January 2016. In all cases, the January numbers were greater than the previous December.

Perhaps one reason why we didn’t see a huge surge in new registrations was due to complications in the rollout of Amendment 4. Backers of the measure, including the ACLU of Florida, argue that the measure is self-implementing. But there continues to be confusion over how the verification of returning citizens should occur or how murder or sex offender should be defined. A Senate Criminal Justice Committee legislative hearing in January revealed numerous discrepancies in the verification process.

On a positive note, some returning citizens—most notably Desmond Meade, the charismatic leader of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition—successfully registered in January.

But others have not been so lucky.

After scouring news reports, we identified 61 individuals in January who self-identified as former felons who were registering to vote.

Some of these returning citizens, though, still have not been placed on the voter rolls.

Drawing on public records, we’ve identified more than 20 of the 61 self-identified returning citizens not on the books as of February 1. It’s possible that some moved out of Florida, died, or reported a nickname to reporters when they registered to vote. There are other possibilities, tragic and ironic, too.

It’s also possible that some applicants had missing information on their registration form. Florida requires an applicant’s name, address of legal residence, date of birth, checking the box affirming that the applicant is a citizen of the United States, and a current and valid Florida driver license number or number from a Florida identification card, or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

For returning citizens to leave required information off a form would be odd, as reporters documented how Supervisors and voting rights advocates oversaw the process. And even if missing information caused a delay in processing the applications, according to the Florida Statutes, “[t]he registration date for a valid initial voter registration application that has been hand delivered is the date that the application is received by a driver license office, a voter registration agency, an armed forces recruitment office, the division, or the office of any supervisor in the state.”

The confusion over allowing returning citizens to register to vote is disconcerting.  Although our sample of self-identified ex-felons is small and non-random, our findings may portend further complications for this historically marginalized population to be able to successfully register to vote.

Why might all this matter? To be eligible to vote in Florida, one must be registered at least 29 days prior to Election Day.  It is possible that some of our returning citizens may have their franchise jeopardized in upcoming local elections.

Let’s hope—with guidance from the state legislature—that our local Supervisors of Elections and the Florida Division of Elections can hammer out a fair process to assure that all returning citizens who register to vote have their applications processed in a timely and proper manner.

Returning citizens and the more than 5 million Floridians who supported Amendment 4 last November are counting on it.


This opinion piece was written by my three University of Florida Political Science Junior Fellows, Karla Cejas, Sydney ElDeiry, Max Matheu. They are part of the UF Election Science team lead by Professor Michael McDonald (aka, @electproject) and me.