A serious disagreement over what constitutes the completion of a prison sentence continues to be the issue that divides Republicans and Democrats when it comes to allowing ex-felons to vote.
Constitutional Amendment 4 was approved by more than 64 percent of Floridians last year, providing automatic restoration of voting rights to former felons.
But lawmakers are now tinkering with how to implement the Amendment, including what it means to complete a prison sentence.
In a party line vote on Thursday, lawmakers approved legislation to outline that completion of a sentence means any fees, fines or restitution to victims imposed by a judge at the time of the sentence.
The vote was taken in the state House State Affairs Committee, advancing the proposal sponsored by state Rep. Jamie Grant. He is a Republican from the Tampa Bay area who says the definition of what is a completed sentence is delineated in the Florida Constitution.
Critics dispute his definition, saying the bill is adding additional financial barriers to voting that were not considered a part of a person’s sentence. Essentially, that means an ex-felon would have to pay off fees to vote.
Cecile Scoon is the first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. She says the bill violates the Florida Constitution because it allows agencies such as the Department of Corrections to dictate what comprises a sentence.
“The only entity that we acknowledge and accept is a judge,” Scoon said. “Allowing these outside administrative agencies to actually create fines and fees…is redefining what is Amendment 4, going well outside what was said when the people voted.”
Grant says that both Jon Mills, the attorney who argued for Amendment 4 in the Florida Supreme Court, and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, originally agreed that completion of a sentence means felons must pay court costs before they can vote.
That point ultimately led committee Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican from Spring Hill, to directly challenge Neil Volz, who is with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Ingoglia asked why the group got rid of information on its website about felons needing to pay off court costs as part of the completion of a sentence.
“Can you explain to me why you had information that was transmitting certain information to the voter, and it (has) since been pulled down?” Ingoglia asked.
“We do want to communicate, and we have communicated authentically as we can, but not always as clearly as we can,” Volz said. “The idea that we should be 100 percent accurate is a standard that I think leads to word games and sound bite gymnastics, and that doesn’t really help people in their real lives.”
That response failed to satisfy some Republicans on the committee, several of whom fired questions back at Volz.
Amendment 4 supporters told the committee they should not add barriers to allowing ex-felons to automatically get their voting rights back.
“What I hear presented now is fear. We shouldn’t allow fear to hold us back,” said Tampa activist Connie Burton.
“Believe in the voters, and give those who have paid by their physical presence of being locked down, an opportunity to understand what liberty and justice means in the state of Florida.”
Mark Schlakman, senior program director for the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, said that neither Jon Mills’ comments in front of the Florida Supreme Court, nor the words on the Florida Restoration Rights Coalition’s website were binding. “It’s strictly the language that people voted on” that matters, he said.
Ultimately, all of the Democrats on the committee voted no, with several saying that they have been inundated by their constituents to oppose the measure.
“I’ve yet to speak to a single voter who feels that it was their intent for returning citizens to pay fines and fees that were not assigned by a judge as part of their sentence,” said state Rep. Adam Hattersley, a Democrat from Hillsborough County.
In summing up his argument, Grant dismissed the criticism, saying that while he believes in second chances and redemption, he ultimately took an oath to the Constitution and he swore fidelity to uphold the integrity of the Constitution.
A similar bill in the Senate is moving its way through that chamber. Both the House and the Senate must pass their bills, and the governor would have to sign for it become law.