An estimated 6 million Americans couldn’t vote on Tuesday because they were convicted felons. About half of those people had finished their sentences and left prison. They still weren’t allowed to vote. Roughly half of those Americans — about 1.5 million — live in Florida.
Disenfranchisement in the United States has taken on many forms in recent years: voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting are just two examples. But restricting the voting rights of felons is one of the oldest practices on the books. And nowhere has it been more widespread than in Florida, possibly the one state where the phrase “every vote counts” consistently rings true. (See: Bush v. Gore, 2000; Obama v. Romney, 2012; Trump v. Clinton, 2016; Scott v. Nelson, 2018.)
But Florida’s ex-felons got a reprieve on Tuesday. Almost two-thirds of residents who could and did vote on Nov. 6 elected to restore voting rights for those who couldn’t. It was one of the most far-reaching statewide results in this year’s midterms, one that could have lasting effects on how future elections play out in this pivotal state.
“It’s a really important milestone just in the sheer number of people who will be re-enfranchised,” says Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who studies felon voting rights.
A dozen states deny voting rights to some or all convicts, even after they’ve fulfilled their prison, parole, or probation sentences, according to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, a non-profit criminal justice advocacy group. But Florida was by far the most prominent offender. Its disenfranchised felon population was the country’s largest, thanks to the state’s sizable number of prisoners and its relatively harsh sentencing guidelines.
“Florida was the elephant in the room,” says Christopher Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociologist and a co-author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy.
While the state has one of the biggest prison populations in the U.S., it has also convicted a disproportionate number of people of color. White people still make up the largest share of felons in Florida. But among African-Americans in the state, 20 percent have been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction compared with 9.2 percent of the overall population.
“It’s a really important milestone just in the sheer number of people who will be re-enfranchised.”
Florida’s voting restrictions stem from some of the darker shadows of the Reconstruction Era, when Southern states often looked for ways to suppress black voters. In 1868, Florida’s Constitution took away felons’ right to vote, even making a crime like petty larceny a felony.
Over the last couple decades, felons have unsuccessfully used class-action lawsuits to try to change the law in the court system. In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican now a Democrat, revised the state’s clemency process and restored more than 150,000 residents’ voting rights. But his successor, Republican Rick Scott, dialed back that process. Under Scott’s administration, only 3,200 saw their voting rights restored.
That left few options for Florida’s ex-felons other than going directly to the enfranchised themselves. “It was a tremendous victory,” Uggen says, especially for people “who had older criminal records that may date from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s who were really shut out of the electorate.”
The result is a historic win for civil rights activists working to reform the criminal justice system, one that’s often stacked against people of color. But what does it mean for Florida’s future elections?
For the last two decades, it seemed impossible to hold an election without Florida’s races being decided by the slimmest of margins. Look at Tuesday’s race for the U.S. Senate between Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott. As of Wednesday, the difference in the race was just 30,000 votes. Adding 1.5 million ex-felons to the rolls has the potential to sway those kinds of close races. But whether that happens will ultimately depend on two questions: Which way would they lean politically? And will they vote?
Uggen estimates that 80 to 90 percent of Florida’s black ex-felons likely lean Democratic based on how similar populations have voted in other states and that the remaining 75 percent of the total ex-felon population breaks down evenly between Democratic and Republican voters. Uggen points to one study he conducted with NYU sociologist Jeffrey Manza, which estimated that Florida’s ex-felons would likely have voted for Democrat Al Gore over Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election by a margin of at least two to one, easily making up the 537-vote difference and giving Gore the state, and ultimately, the White House.
Another study Uggen points to is a national survey from 2002, which found that “Democratic candidates would have received about 7 out of every 10 votes cast by the felons and ex-felons in 14 of the last 15 U.S. Senate election years.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a big victory for the Democratic party or portray it in partisan terms, but on balance, I think the outcome [of the ballot measure] will likely tilt Democratic to some degree,” Uggen says.
The more pressing question might be whether ex-felons will vote at all. According to studies by the University of Pennsylvania’s Meredith and Harvard PhD candidate Michael Morse, in six other states that recently relaxed their voting rights laws, ex-felon turnout ranged from just 8 percent to 14 percent.
Uggen, however, says he believes turnout could be higher in Florida because so many ex-felons have been integrated into society over decades and are more invested in their communities than newly released prisoners.
Assuming turnout numbers and political preference follows similar patterns, Uggen says it’s reasonable to believe that if ex-felons had voted this week, they would have swayed the election toward Nelson, the Democratic incumbent. They could even have had an effect on the governor’s race, which Republican Ron DeSantis led over Democrat Andrew Gillum by 51,000 votes, as of Wednesday.
Similarly, Meredith and Morse estimate that of the 1.5 million Floridians now eligible to vote, an estimated 102,000 would vote for Democrats, 54,000 would vote for Republicans, and 40,000 could go either away. The others likely wouldn’t vote.
“It is those races that are so close that there could be a recount,” Meredith says. “That’s where re-enfranchisement could matter.”