Politics & Government

Local elections office ready for felons who want to vote. The state may be another story

More than 1 million prior felons in the state of Florida will be eligible to vote as of Tuesday morning when the Florida Voting Felons Rights Act takes affect after passing in the November general election with 64 percent of the vote.

Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett said he won’t know for sure until later this week, but he doesn’t expect his office to be inundated with former felons looking to get registered.

However, he is prepared to begin approving those registrations when asked.

“This is no different than any other philosophy when it comes to this office,” Bennett said late Monday. “We make it as easy as possible for everyone to be able to vote.”

Officials across the state hail the passage of Amendment 4 as a civil rights victory but two months after the election, the electoral waters remain muddied at the state level. The law requires that a former felon has completed all of his or her sentencing requirements, including probation, parole and/or restitution.

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Right now, there is no communications link from the state to election officials to verify that is the case for every voter looking to register. Bennett said, for now, it will take some personal responsibility on the part of the potential voter to ensure they are not committing another felony by illegally applying to vote.

“Unless we know for a fact that you have not completed those requirements, I’m signing you up because I have no way to verify if you paid restitution or are off probation,” Bennett said. “If you check the box and are willing to commit a felony, then there is the personal responsibility.”

Bennett said there wasn’t anything special his office had to do to prepare for Tuesday’s law to go into effect, but he said state officials needed to work hard and fast toward making some clarifications. While murderers and sexual predators will remain ineligible to vote under the new law, Bennett said those crimes still have some interpretation issues to resolve, as well.

“Is DUI manslaughter a murder? What are we talking about here?” Bennett said. “If you have someone who is 17 and 15, is that a sex crime that keeps you from voting? I would rather have some clarification from the state.”

Newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis agrees, but wants the law to go back to the legislature. Bennett said the Florida Secretary of State’s Office can clarify how the law is ultimately interpreted.

“I know the governor wants it to go to back to the legislature, but it doesn’t need to,” Bennett said. “I would have a problem with that. Clarification can come from the secretary of state and if it does, I think we have plenty of time to ensure those who are eligible to vote have the opportunity to vote under the law before the next election cycle.”

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Breaking News/Real Time Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been with the Bradenton Herald since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years, including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and for beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.
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