Voting rights for Florida felons? Floridians approved it last fall, but Legislature adds roadblocks

By: - May 3, 2019 6:01 pm

Photo by Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

Desmond Meade

When Constitutional Amendment 4 passed last November, advocates said it would automatically restore voting rights for some 1.4 million people who had felony records (except murderers or sex offenders). But under a measure the Legislature passed Friday, the number of felons eligible to vote will surely drop.

The legislation on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis says felons will have to pay fines and restitution costs or go through more hoops before they can register to vote. Felons have already been registering to vote since January 8.

Critics say the Legislature is betraying voters, who approved (by over 64 percent) automatic restoration of voting rights.

Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (and named last month by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world), said Florida lawmakers had decades to deal with the issue and “did not pick the ball up.”

“We picked that ball up and we got it across the finish line,” Meade said, “and after we got it across the finish line, here come elected officials to try to pick that ball back up. And today, they fumbled.”

If DeSantis signs the bill into law, it will go into effect immediately. Felons would have to pay all fines and restitution unless a victim or a judge “forgives” the restitution, or if felons participate in a yet-to-be-created program that would allow them to perform community service in lieu of payment.

State Rep. Al Jacquet, a Democrat from Palm Beach County, urged Gov. DeSantis to take an “Abraham Lincoln moment” and veto the bill when it comes to his desk.

The bill has attracted national attention, much of it unfavorable, with critics claiming that linking voting to someone’s ability to pay fines, fees and restitution to voting was the equivalent of a “poll tax.

If DeSantis signs the legislation into law, a person with a felony conviction registered after January 8, may not, in fact, be able to vote if they haven’t yet paid fines or restitution. But the new measure says they won’t be prosecuted for already registering.

Republicans argued during the legislative session that the attorney who went before the Florida Supreme Court in 2017 to get the Amendment 4 ballot language approved said that “completion of sentence” included paying all fines, fees and restitution. That same information was listed until recently on the website of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that advocated for the measure. County Supervisors of Elections from both political parties also claimed Amendment 4 was ambiguous in determining when a felon had completed their sentence.

During debate in the House Friday, Rep. Dotie Joseph, a Democrat from North Miami, said Republican lawmakers who wrote the bill needed to take race into account so as not to perpetuate the state’s grim history of voting rights racial discrimination.

“The Florida electorate spoke loud and clear,” Joseph said of the more than five million Floridians  who voted for the amendment. “We wanted everyone to vote after they paid their time – not paid their money. That part of the ballot language was crystal clear.”

The American Civil Liberties Union spent nearly $4 million helping get Amendment 4 on the ballot. The executive director of the organization’s Florida chapter, Micah Kubic, released a blistering statement this week, calling the legislation “overly broad” and saying “These bills are a blatant legislative overreach and an example of state legislators substituting their views for those of the people of Florida.”

Senator Oscar Braynon, a Democrat from Miami Gardens, challenged the Legislature to do more to help felons re-integrate back into society in the coming legislative sessions.

“The goal is for someone to become better,” Braynon said. “No one here is asking them not to do their time. No one here is asking for them not to pay restitution, to not pay their fines. What we’re asking is for them to become a part of society, and voting is a fundamental block.”

Kirk Bailey, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said this week that litigation is likely, though he said it he couldn’t say whether a lawsuit would be filed in state or federal court.

Voting in the Legislature went largely along political lines, with Democrats voting no and Republicans voting yes. The House vote was 67-42, and the Senate vote was 22-17.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.