On felons voting, what will Tallahassee do to the will of the people this time?

Floridians just approved automatic restoration of felons' voting rights. But what will Amendment 4 and the will of the people look like once Tallahassee's had a crack at it?
With a grin on his face, Rodney Johnson, 47, walks out of the County Center after registering to vote for the first time on Tuesday. Johnson was released from prison in 2000. Since the passing of Amendment 4 Johnson is allowed to register to vote. "I feel full and completed," Johnson said. "To be able to to get my voice back and have my own rights." He adds he now feels better when he speaks to his children.  (BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)
With a grin on his face, Rodney Johnson, 47, walks out of the County Center after registering to vote for the first time on Tuesday. Johnson was released from prison in 2000. Since the passing of Amendment 4 Johnson is allowed to register to vote. "I feel full and completed," Johnson said. "To be able to to get my voice back and have my own rights." He adds he now feels better when he speaks to his children. (BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)
Published January 8
Updated January 10

Before we get to who might and might not be able to vote in the all-important 2020 presidential election — right down to what a lien means, and more on that in a minute — how about a well-earned victory lap for those who fought the good fight for fairness in Florida?

Former felons across the state are getting their right to vote automatically restored instead of having to undergo a ridiculously long and usually unsuccessful process to get that right back.

Related: ‘This is history to me’

Notably, this change came not from politicians but from the people, with Amendment 4's very-American concept of second chances winning nearly two-thirds of the statewide vote.

Among those registering to vote Tuesday: Michael Hazard, whose run for Tampa mayor was derailed last year when officials learned he had a felony conviction for bad checks. Hazard plans to resume his mayoral campaign.

Okay, victory lap over.

Get ready for the inevitable test of the will of the people in a state where foot-dragging and slow-walking measures that certain politicians don’t like from the get-go has become tradition. (Medical marijuana, anyone?)

This one's got legs. Because it means votes.

Amendment 4 opens up the polls to more than a million potential voters statewide — more than 152,000 in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.

Heck, 10,000 former felons already had applications pending under outgoing Gov. Rick Scott's it'll-take-years-and-probably-won't-happen-anyway rights "restoration" process.

And it is worth noting that this group tends to skew black and presumably Democrat.

This week, elections supervisors are taking Amendment 4 in stride and registering voters on their word like they always have: Yes, I am a citizen. No, I have not had my rights removed because of mental incapacity. No, I am not a felon, and if I am, I have had my rights restored.

Because Amendment 4 just did that for them.

But incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis has said the measure shouldn't take effect until lawmakers pass a bill on how to implement it for him to sign into law. The legislative session doesn't start until March.

And those close to the process say it's a pretty good bet that one way or another, Amendment 4 ends up mired in court.

Some potential pushback against former felons could come down to what a lien means.

Amendment 4 plainly says it "restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation."

Here's the thing: Sometimes probation is terminated even when the person does not pay all the required court costs, fees or restitution, often when the defendant doesn't have the money and may never have it.

In plenty of cases, a lien is attached in case a defendant ever, say, hits the lottery.

Amendment 4 proponents expect to hear the argument that this means someone did not complete "all terms" of his sentence and is therefore not automatically eligible to vote.

The argument back?

These defendants are officially done in criminal court, their probation terminated. Liens are a civil matter. And the spirit of what voters wanted in Amendment 4 is a second chance for people done with their criminal cases.

Expect other arguments. The biggest one of all is that lawmakers and the new governor, who opposed the amendment, should do nothing, allowing it to be implemented as is and as intended. Good luck with that.

Amendment 4 is a victory for Floridians. But I guess we'll see what the will of the people looks like once they're done with it in Tallahassee.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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