Gov. DeSantis signs bill to restore felon voting rights; civil rights groups sue

By: - June 28, 2019 7:34 pm
Second Chances ad

Floridians for a Fair Democracy and the Second Chances campaign spent nearly $5 million on ads to support Florida Constitutional Amendment 4 ahead of the Nov. 6 election. Credit: Second Chances ad screenshot.

Waiting until virtually the last day to act, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed controversial legislation on Friday that narrows the field of felons who can now vote following the passage of Amendment 4 last November.

That Amendment called for automatically restoring the voting rights of all felons who have completed their prison sentences, with the exception of those who committed murder or a sexual felony.

But the Republican-led Legislature passed a law this spring that defined the completion of a sentence to mean paying off all fines, fees or restitution owed to a victim.

The issue became a state and national debate that pitted Republicans against Democrats as well as advocates for felon rights and taxpayers who overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, and DeSantis’s decision Friday has already sparked a federal lawsuit.

The legislation approved by governor does allow felons to petition a judge to waive fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours. If he or she owes restitution, the victim must approve allowing a judge to waive the money or having it converted to community service hours.

Democrats argued strenuously to remove those monetary-related provisions to the legislation, saying 41 other states allow felons to vote while still maintaining financial responsibilities related to their sentences.

Millions of Florida voters approving Amendment 4, with about 65 percent of the vote.

Florida has been one of a handful of states that did not automatically restore voting rights following the completion of a criminal sentence, and the issue became a national story as part of a narrative of criminal justice reforms nationwide.

A month after its passage, however, Gov. DeSantis said that the Amendment needed what’s called an “implementing” bill.

And over the winter, supervisors of elections traveled to Tallahassee and told lawmakers in workshops that they needed guidance in how to determine who was eligible.

Advocates for Amendment 4 said legislative language to Amendment 4 wasn’t necessary. But Republicans, led by state Rep. James Grant from the Tampa Bay area, challenged that idea.

Grant said that the attorney who argued for the measure before the Florida Supreme Court agreed that completion of sentence did mean paying off all fines, fees and restitution. Amendment 4 supporters said the Supreme Court testimony was not binding and that requiring fines, fees and restitution to be able to vote is effectively a “poll tax.”

In a signing statement, DeSantis criticized language in Amendment 4 that restores voting rights to violent felons, “including felons convicted of attempted robbery and kidnapping, so as long as those felons completed all terms of their sentence. I think this was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders.”

However, in that same paragraph, DeSantis questioned why the bill only restored voting rights, and not other civil rights such as the right to hold public office and serve on a jury.

The governor said he is “considering whether to seek restoration of all civil rights to some of those whose rights were restored by Amendment 4. However, I would only consider restoring rights to those convicted of non-violent offenses.”

The bill faced fierce criticism as it moved through the Legislature this spring, and a coalition announced Friday night that it has gone to federal court to challenge the new law.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law and the League of Women Voters of Florida filed their suit in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida.

“The financial restrictions this law places on the right to vote will have a disproportionate impact on Black and low-income citizens,” said League of Women Voters of Florida President Patricia Brigham in a written statement. “It is for this reason that we have filed suit in federal court to overturn this blatant attempt at voter suppression.”

Another group, the Campaign Legal Center, announced on Saturday that they too, had filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two individual Floridians.

The legislation was tucked into a larger elections reform bill (SB 7066) pushed by Republicans in the Legislature.

“SB7066 was never intended to follow the people’s mandate under Amendment 4,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson from Jacksonville. “It was an unnecessary bill designed for the sole purpose of permanently disenfranchising as many ex-felons as possible.”

The legislation was tucked into a larger elections reform bill (SB 7066) pushed by Republicans in the Legislature.

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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.