MIAMI -- Clarence Office was first in line earlier this month to register to vote. A retired veteran who served three years in prison for a drug conviction, Office recently got his voting rights restored thanks to a new state law making ex-cons eligible to cast ballots.
“As I have gotten older, I see now the significance of being able to vote,” Office said.
He is part of a new wave of voters who could reshape Florida’s electoral map. State voters passed an amendment in November giving roughly 1.4 million former felons — or returning citizens, as they are called — the right to take part in future elections. Experts are trying to figure out how those citizens are going to influence state politics, particularly the 2020 elections.
Office called it absurd that those who served time were stripped of their right to vote.
“These people own homes, they have businesses, they have children that went to school, got Ph.D.s — and you can’t even go and vote for the mayor of the city that you live in?” Office said. “That’s crazy.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declined to weigh in on what the change means for the state’s political future, only saying he is “committed to ensuring a uniform process that can be implemented consistently throughout Florida’s 67 counties.”
But how that process will look like and how it would shake up future elections in a hugely important swing state is anybody’s guess.
To put it in perspective, the number of felons who regained the right to vote in Florida exceeds the total population of some states, accounting for nearly 10 percent of Florida’s population. In a state where elections can be decided by a handful of votes — George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election by just 537 votes in the state.
Experts say that may be enough to tip the scales but it’s unclear which political party will benefit most.
“A lot of felons are men, because men disproportionately get convicted of felonies and go to prison,” said Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. “Men tend to vote Republican. But on the other hand, given the socio-economic status of this group, it could go in the opposite direction, too. There could be more Democratic votes.”
Florida’s Republican House Speaker Anitere Flores said she isn’t making any assumptions.
“Anytime that you expect that a certain demographic is going to vote for you just because of your party affiliation, you make a very big mistake – and people make that mistake in Florida a lot,” Flores said.
State lawmakers say that both parties will compete heavily to win over the new voters.
Uscinski predicts those who got their voting rights restored will focus on a candidate, not a political party.
“Depending on what the candidates say and what their outreach is, that is what is going to attract this potential bloc of voters,” said Uscinski.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which backed the vote, praised the new political dynamic.
According to ACLU and the Sentencing Project research, Florida was one of only four states — the others are Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia —where convicted felons could not regain the right to vote unless a state officer or board restored that rights. The group contends 6.1 million Americans lost their right to vote due to felony convictions. Amendment 4 restores the eligibility of 1.4 million former felons to vote.
“Florida voters passed Amendment 4,” the ACLU said, “a clear expression that Floridians overwhelmingly believe that when a debt is paid, it’s paid.”