Virus, fees hinder drive to register Florida felons to vote

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William Freeman, 51, poses for a photograph outside of his polling station, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Riviera Beach, Fla. Freeman recently registered to vote after serving three years for grand theft, his fourth prison stint. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When Floridians overwhelmingly approved a measure allowing most felons to vote after completing their sentences, many expected Democrats to benefit most from the participation of up to 1.4 million newly eligible voters in this year’s election.

But the coronavirus pandemic, which has hampered registration drives, and a disputed requirement that felons pay a series of costs before their rights are restored have turned the anticipated geyser of new voters in the largest swing state into a trickle.

The state does not track how many felons — or “returning citizens” as many activists call them — have been registered since Amendment 4 passed in 2018, lifting a ban enacted following the Civil War. But Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the amendment's main backer, puts the number at 100,000.

He hopes to add 40,000 more by the state's Oct. 5 general election registration deadline.

Although the tally is far from the originally anticipated surge of new voters, Meade points out that 140,000 would still be more than the 110,000 votes by which President Donald Trump carried Florida in 2016 and, famously, the 537 votes that separated Republican George W. Bush from Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

But, he added, there's also a principle, not just an election, at stake.

“This is about American citizens having their voices heard,” said Meade, who registered last year after a drug conviction two decades ago.

Most Floridians apparently agreed: The measure garnered support from liberal and conservative groups and passed with 64% of the vote.