At a Department of Elections office in Doral, there were smiles and exhales of relief, as the first convicted felons trickled in to register to vote - some of them for the first time - on the day that constitutional Amendment 4 took effect.
“I never voted a day in my life,” Jerry Armstrong, 45, of Miami, said after filling out his paperwork. “I feel like I’m a United States citizen, so I want my right to vote.”
Kiyuana Pasley, 37, Armstrong’s girlfriend, said the couple followed the passage of Amendment 4 on the news and has talked about it often.
“That was the first thing he wanted to do today, he said ‘I’m gonna register to vote today,’” said Pasley. “It’s very exciting because a lot of people don’t take opportunities like this. So this is important not only just for him but for everybody who has been unable to vote, to get up and register.”
Amendment 4 -approved by more than 60 percent of voters last November- has extended the right to vote for most people convicted of felonies in Florida, so long as they have completed the terms of their sentence and not been convicted of a felony sex crime or murder. The amendment went into effect on Tuesday, January 8.
Across the state, voters lined up to their Supervisor of Elections offices to register. Several county offices said it was too soon to give numbers on any uptick of voter registration. But in Miami-Dade, a small stream of new voters could be seen coming through the doors.
“To me it’s like a sense of renewal,” said Clarence Office, 61, who took a few hours off work to register. “I think it’s a step for everyone who has been disenfranchised all these years. There’s people who haven’t been in any trouble for 30 or 40 years who aren’t able to vote one thing they may have done when they were a kid.”
Office came with his co-worker Lorenzo Latson, 58, who hasn’t been able to vote since 2011.
“It feels like I’m a useful member of the community now, I can do things that I wasn’t able to do before,” said Latson. He pulled out his phone and started calling friends, shouting the address of the elections office and urging them to come by.
Despite the hype, there are still unanswered questions about how Amendment 4 will be implemented once voter registration forms reach state agencies that are tasked with verifying information, and how many of the people who registered to vote on the first day will actually be verified as eligible voters. There are definitional questions, most notably confusion about when a sentence is actually completed.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which also handles criminal justice databases checked during the registration process, has said it needs to wait for the legislature to implement a bill giving it guidance on how to interpret the Amendment. Likewise, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took his oath of office on Tuesday, has stated he thinks the amendment cannot be in effect until the legislature passed legislation clarifying these details.
Additionally, County Clerks of Court, who handle broad swaths of criminal justice data, are unclear whether a sentence is legally complete if a defendant still owes court fees or fines but has completed a prison term and probation.
“Clerks are not in a position to interpret the amendment’s language, and they are not able to determine whether someone is eligible to vote,” wrote Savannah Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Florida Association of Clerk Courts and Comptrollers in an email. “However, as other implementing authorities weigh in on those key questions—like the definition of a completed sentence—Clerks stand ready to respond appropriately.”
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle’s office told WLRN it will not prosecute convicted felons who register to vote thanks to Amendment 4, “based on their belief that their rights are restored.”
Local elections take place as soon as mid-February, before the legislature meets. In Tampa, a closely watched mayoral race is happening in early March, just as the legislature goes into session.
For Anthony Bushell, 52, registering to vote gives him hope he will be able to fully participate in society. He follows politics closely, and in past elections has helped people get to the polls. During the 2018 midterm race, he estimates he drove 28 friends to polling locations. Next election, he will do more than just drive.
“Seeing all these elections go by, whether it’s the city, the county, the state as well as the federal government, it kind of hurts not to be able to participate,” said Bushell. “I’m looking forward to all the elections.”