Civil rights leader: ‘Once a person has paid their debt to society, they should be able to vote’

Voters casting ballots. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

A Florida civil rights leader testified Thursday that a 2019 law requiring former felons to pay all court costs before having voting rights restored — even though they have finished their prison terms — has disrupted efforts to register African-American voters.

In a federal trial where the constitutionality of the law is being challenged, Marsha Ellison, an officer with the NAACP Florida State Conference, said her organization supported the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018 as a way to replace a cumbersome clemency process that rarely led to the restoration of voting rights for former prisoners.

“We believe…once a person has paid their debt to society, they should be able to vote,” said Ellison, who has been the state NAACP treasurer since 2005 and a member of the civil rights group for the past 25 years.

Ellison said under former Gov. Charlie Crist, who left office in January 2011, a process was created where more former felons — who supporters call “returning citizens” — could successfully apply to have their voting rights restored.

But that changed when former Gov. Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. senator, replaced Crist.

“It was a very different process than the previous administration and one that went back to the old rules of disenfranchisement,” Ellison testified. “Very few people had their rights restored and it took away hope from individuals because the process was so daunting.”

Ellison said the NAACP believed the passage of Amendment 4, which allows voting rights to be restored upon completion of “all terms of sentence,” would allow the felons to become voters once they had served their prison time, completed their parole or probation, and possibly paid their restitution costs.

But the 2019 Legislature passed a law that had a more expansive interpretation of the state constitutional amendment, requiring the felons to pay all “legal financial obligations” related to their cases.

A January advisory opinion from the Florida Supreme Court affirmed that interpretation.

Ellison said the NAACP opposed the 2019 law because its members knew the difficulties that former prisoners faced when they returned to their communities, much less having to pay thousands of dollars in court fees in order to vote.

“They are always talking about their struggles of about finding employment, finding housing, and basically just being able to live,” Ellison said. “We knew our community was not going to be able to pay and thus they would be disenfranchised for life.”

The law took effect last July 1, after many former felons had immediately registered when Amendment 4 took effect in early January 2019.

“All those individuals who had hope, many of whom had registered but perhaps owed fees, it was a very upsetting time,” Ellison said.

Ellison said while the NAACP still tries to help the former felons register to vote under the law, it is difficult to find court records about the outstanding court costs, particularly for the older cases.

She also noted the records on the court costs vary across the state’s 67 counties.

She said the complications are a significant barrier to registering the former felons, since the NAACP wants to make sure they do not have any outstanding fees before they file a registration form.

“They don’t want to re-offend. They don’t want to go back into the system,” Ellison said.

The trial, which is being held in U.S District court in Tallahassee, will enter its fifth day on Friday, with the NAACP and other civil rights groups alleging the 2019 law creates an unconstitutional “wealth test” for former felons seeking to vote.

In the second half of the trial, lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee will lay out their defense of the law, arguing that the measure follows the language of Amendment 4, as interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle is presiding over the case.