Felons in Florida Fight for Fundamental Freedoms

By Elizabeth Parizh, CLS ’20

With the midterm elections coming up, you might be thinking about how you’re going to vote. You might be looking at which candidates you agree with most, what policies are most important to you, and the potential consequences from these decisions. But if you are a resident of Florida, as well as Iowa, Kentucky, or Virginia[1], and have ever been convicted of a felony, you cannot take part in any of this[2]. Even if the conviction is fifty years old and you completed your sentence thirty years ago, you likely are unable to vote. This is in Section 4 of Article VI of the Florida Constitution, written back in 1968[3].

The Eleventh Circuit upheld this law in Johnson v. Governor of Fla., finding it in violation of neither the Voting Rights Act[4]nor the Constitution.[5]Plaintiffs argued that the disenfranchisement provision was racially motivated and particularly impacted black men.[6]The court disagreed, holding that the statute was passed after African Americans had a right to vote and the provision was race-neutral[7].

You could try to go through the clemency board, comprised of the governor and his cabinet, to get your rights restored, but you would have to wait at least five years to even apply and there are currently thousands of people waiting in the backlog[8]. A federal judge ruled this process unconstitutional in Hand v. Scott, but the state is appealing[9], with a stay granted in the meantime[10]. In the case, the court found the process violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution because it was subjective, arbitrary, and discriminatory[11]. This violated the First Amendment by violating felons’ right to free association and expression[12], and the Fourteenth because courts have historically avoided such acts of grace[13]. However, the judge upheld voter disenfranchisement itself, finding issue only with how Florida went about restoring it[14].

Amendment 4 is attempting to change the entire system. It was intended to “automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences.”[15]The sentence includes “prison, parole, and probation.”[16]If this proposal passes, it would restore voting rights to almost 1.5 million Floridians[17].

The movement to get the amendment on the ballot has been pushed in large part by grassroots organizations. The Florida Rights Restoration got over a million signatures[18]and 5.5 million dollars[19]. It needs 60% approval rating to pass[20], which some are more optimistic of reaching than others.

Proponents argue that Florida is one of only four states with such voter disenfranchisement and the sentence itself is meant to provide adequate punishment[21]. Further, allowing ex-felons to vote would help them become productive members of society[22], which would allow them to “contribute $365 million to Florida’s economy.” [23]As Angel Sanchez, a disenfranchised voter currently in law school and pushing this bill, indicated, “We really believe in redemption and second chances, and we believe in Florida, once a debt is paid, it’s paid in full.”[24]At the same time, some oppose the proposal, claiming the Legislature should be the one to address the issue and grant voting rights to those who deserve it[25]. Still others are opposed because it excludes those convicted of murder or sex offenses[26]. The argument is that a murder or sex offense decades previously should not impact voting rights, especially considering those convicted of voter fraud or similar offenses will be able to regain their right.[27]

To learn more about this movement, visit secondchancesfl.org[28].

[1]Amendment 4: Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, Florida Association of Counties,



[4]Johnson v. Governor of Fla., 405 F.3d 1214, 1234 (11th Cir. 2005).

[5]Id. at 1226-27.

[6]Id. at 1217.

[7]Id.at 1219.

[8]Layron Livingston, Passing of Amendment 4 could increase number of Florida voters by nearly 1.5 million, Local10, https://www.local10.com/news/elections/passing-of-amendment-4-could-increase-number-of-florida-voters-by-nearly-15-million.


[10]Steve Bousquet, A long, hot summer of building support to grant felons the right to vote, Tampa Bay Times, https://www.tampabay.com/florida-politics/buzz/2018/07/19/a-long-hot-summer-of-building-support-to-grant-felons-the-right-to-vote/.

[11]Hand v. Scott, 285 F. Supp. 3d 1289, 1300 (N.D. Fla. 2018).

[12]Id. at 1295-96.

[13]Id. at 1307.

[14]Id. at 1300.

[15]Amendment 4, supra note 1.


[17]Livingston, supra note 8.


[19]Bousquet,supra note 10.


[21]Ginny Beagan, Vote yes or no for Amendment 4? Here’s what 6 Florida newspapers recommend, Florida TOday,


[23]Bousquet,supra note 10.

[24]Livingston, supra note 8.

[25]Beagan,supra note 21.

[26]Lynn Hatter, Critic Of Voting Restoration Initiative Says Amendment 4 Pits Felons Against Each Other, WLRN, http://www.wlrn.org/post/critic-voting-restoration-initiative-says-amendment-4-pits-felons-against-each-other.


[28]Second Chances, https://secondchancesfl.org/.