Politics & Government

The GOP rallied around prison reforms, but will it embrace an effort to let felons vote in Florida?

Florida leads nation in disenfranchising former felons

Florida excludes more former felons from voting than any other state because of its restrictive restoration of rights laws.
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Florida excludes more former felons from voting than any other state because of its restrictive restoration of rights laws.

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WASHINGTON — Conservatives have been at the forefront of Washington’s effort to help rehabilitate federal prisoners this past year, but an effort to restore convicted felons’ voting rights in Florida is pitting the party’s new position on the issue against its future prospects in a key presidential swing state.

Miami attorney Marlon Hill told Beyond the Bubble Tuesday that Florida’s Amendment 4 — which would effectively create 1.3 million new voters in a state of roughly 13 million registered voters — is drawing unusual support from both parties’ voters in a state that’s played host to some of the closest presidential contests in recent years.

“When you go to the water cooler or the lunchroom table in many offices across Florida, this is the one amendment where there is full clarity,” said Hill, a Miami attorney and contributor to McClatchy’s Florida Influencer series. “I would be shocked if it does not make the 60 percent [needed to become law], as someone who is close to the ground in terms of following these issues.”

Yet fear that the end result could result in more Democratic voters is scaring off some Republicans who have supported other criminal justice reform efforts in the past — including GOP gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis.

“It’s a missed opportunity from the right,” added Hill. “There’s an unfortunate misconception that these 1.3 million voters whose rights are going to be restored are just going to vote for one party.”

This year conservatives in Washington celebrated their party’s unity on a plan to improve the federal prison system’s rehabilitation programs — a move expected to help the GOP improve its standing with voters in urban Democratic strongholds.

DeSantis was among the Republicans who voted to advance that proposal from a Congressional committee earlier this year, while some Democrats held off demanding bigger changes. That plan was later approved by the House, but the Senate has not taken it up.

Pointing to Florida’s close statewide races in the last two election cycles, Hill said Florida’s ballot initiative would force candidates in both parties to compete for a large number of new voters in a state where Republicans have held a narrow advantage in recent years.

DeSantis has not weighed in on whether he supports Amendment 4. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum is an outspoken proponent.

“Florida knows how to have very tight elections… you have to fight for every vote,” said Hill, who supports Gillum in the governor’s race. “I don’t believe that any party should take for granted for any vote, and those 1.3 million people who come into the fray… will take this [seriously].”

Also on this episode of Beyond the Bubble, Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy says Texas voters, who typically check out after the primaries, are gearing up for an unusually competitive fall election.

McClatchy’s Beyond the Bubble show is produced by Jordan-Marie Smith and Davin Coburn. Alex Roarty, a national political correspondent for McClatchy, and Andrea Drusch, Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recorded this episode at McClatchy’s Washington Bureau, October 9, 2018.
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