Another lawsuit has been filed in the controversial Amendment 4 drama, four days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that will restrict the number of felons who can vote.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida, naming DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan.
The complaint is on behalf of Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton, felons who can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars to be able to vote.
Constitutional Amendment 4, approved overwhelmingly by voters last fall, called for automatic restoration of voting rights for all felons who have completed their criminal sentence in Florida, with the exception of those who committed murder or a sexual felony offense.
But the Legislature created what’s called an “implementing” bill that requires felons to pay all fines, fees and restitution before they can get their right to vote back.
That’s a challenge for many felons.
Plaintiff Rosemary McCoy was convicted of three felony offenses in July of 2015 (the lawsuit does not detail what those offenses were, other than that they did not involve a conviction for murder or a felony sexual offense).
She served two years in prison and another 18 months of probation, and was ordered to pay fines and fees of $666. She said the judge had converted the fees and fines to a civil lien.
McCoy registered to vote in Jacksonville in April, and voted in that city’s municipal elections. Shortly after, she learned from the Duval County Clerk of the Courts that she actually owed $7,531 in victim restitution.
“I believe in this country,” McCoy told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday. “I served in the U.S. Navy and I was willing to die for this country, only to see my country turn its back on me.”
Sheila Singleton, the other plaintiff named in the suit, owes $821 in court fines and fees, and another $14,913 in restitution. Neither McCoy nor Singleton, the suit says, can afford to pay those debts.
Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director for voting rights with the Southern Poverty Law Center, says her organization is challenging the law not only because it “redefines” the language in Amendment 4, but also because it “shrinks” the number of people who are now eligible to vote.
Projections before last November’s vote indicated that there were between 1.4 and 1.6 million Floridians whose voting rights could be restored. It’s unknown how many of those felons are now ineligible based on the fact that they continue to owe fines, fees or restitution.
The law promotes “wealth-based discrimination” and fails to consider a person’s ability to pay court fines, violating the constitutional right to equal protection and due process, according to the complaint. And it says that the new law violates the constitutional prohibition of excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment.
The lawsuit is in the same jurisdiction where other lawsuits have filed to challenge the constitutionality of the law.
The group responsible for getting Amendment 4 on the ballot — the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition — has created a website to allow the public to provide funds to help felons pay off their outstanding fines and/or fees so they can vote. As of 4 p.m on Tuesday, it is now up to $85,206.