Immediately after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that narrows the field of felons who can vote following the passage of Amendment 4 in November, a host of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in federal court. They claimed the law unconstitutionally denies the right to vote to citizens with a past felony conviction based solely on their inability to pay outstanding legal financial obligations.
As his administration prepares to defend the law, DeSantis on Friday requested the Florida Supreme Court provide an advisory opinion on the amendment itself. It comes as proponents cite new research that shows legislation implementing the bill will prevent the majority of people who have felony convictions from voting.
In his request, DeSantis notes what advocates for the law said when they pushed to include the provision during the 2019 session earlier this year. Those advocates acknowledged to the Florida Supreme Court, a year before Floridians voted on the issue, that completion of all terms of a sentence included full payment of any outstanding fees. For a citizen-led constitutional amendment to qualify to get on the ballot in Florida, organizers need to collect more than 760,000 signatures statewide, as well as go before the state Supreme Court to have the ballot language reviewed.
For Amendment 4, that court review happened in March, 2017. As DeSantis notes in his written request, members of the Florida Supreme Court asked the attorney representing Amendment 4 if completion of a sentence meant including the payment of all fines, fees and restitution.
“Yes Sir. All terms mean all terms within the four corners,” attorney Jon Mills replied to Justice Ricky Polston, according to a transcript.
That admission is what advocates for the new law say is evidence that voters knew that when they approved the amendment last year, they understood that completion of sentence meant paying off such fines.
However, supporters of the measure have argued that there was no mention of paying off financial obligations in the ballot language itself, which was approved by 5 million Floridians. They say that Mills’ comment was not binding, and that banning citizens automatically from getting their right to vote restored is in effect a “poll tax,” which is unconstitutional.
Amendment 4’s language is clear and simple — “individuals with a conviction for any felony other than murder or a sexual offense will have their voting rights ‘restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation,'” reads a part of the lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP on behalf of 11 plaintiffs who say they have been unfairly denied their right to register to vote because of the new law.
“Yet on June 28, 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation … that attempts to drastically claw back the voting rights conferred by Amendment 4 and retract Plaintiffs’ right to vote,” the lawsuit reads.
Last Friday, many of the same civil rights groups that originally filed the suit came back to federal court to file a motion for preliminary injunction, trying to block the law immediately.
Advocates for the measure have argued that Amendment 4 was “self-implementing,” meaning it didn’t require the legislature to draft a bill creating rules for who was eligible to vote. However, several supervisors of elections testified before the Legislature earlier this year that they needed more clarity in deciding eligibility.
The law went into effect Jan. 8. Citizens who had completed their felony sentence were allowed to register and some have already participated in municipal elections. Those with outstanding financial obligations were not denied the opportunity to register.
The Legislature passed its implementing bill in early May, and it went into effect on July 1. Now people with felony convictions and financial obligations are prevented from registering.
The law does allow the former felons to petition a judge to either waive the restitution or convert it into community service hours.
According to an analysis by University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith, the vast majority of felons who have registered since the passage of Amendment 4 owe some type of fine, fee or restitution.
Using information from the Department of Corrections and the Offender Based Information System, Smith found “fewer than 1 in 5” individuals with a felony conviction other than murder or felony sexual offense are likely to be eligible to vote.
That means that across all 67 counties, the law would “effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who would have been eligible to vote in Florida under Amendment 4 had the legislature not stepped in to dismantle it.”
As the Phoenix has previously reported, Florida is one of only eight states that denies felons who owe fines, fees or restitution from having their voting rights restored after completing their sentences.