A Florida Democratic lawmaker has filed legislation to undo part of a new law Republicans passed that makes it harder for felons to vote.
Riviera Beach state Rep. Al Jacquet’s bill would remove the most controversial element of the law that implements Amendment 4, the felon voting rights constitutional amendment that nearly 65 percent of Floridians approved last fall. In short, Jaquet’s legislation would remove the new provision the Republican-led Legislature put into law that says felons have to pay all fines and fees before they can vote.
Backers of the felon voting rights constitutional amendment said voters believed the right to vote would be restored automatically to felons who completed their sentences. (It does not apply to murderers or those convicted of sex crimes).
The new provision about requiring paid court fees and fines has sparked federal lawsuits from civil rights groups, who allege that the requirement is tantamount to a “poll tax.” Specifically, the groups claim that a felon’s right to vote is now conditional, based on their wealth. The groups claim that’s a violation of the First Amendment and the 14th, 15th and 21st Amendments, as well as what’s called the “ex post facto” clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“For many who completed their terms of incarceration, probation and parole, this could mean obtaining a lawyer to figure out the costs, finding sufficient employment, saving their hard-earned money to pay all at once and then maybe being able to register to vote in their lifetime,” Jacquet said in a written statement. “This was not the intent of the amendment. We must return the eligibility to vote to Floridians who have made mistakes, served their time, and paid their full debt to society.
Republican lawmakers have defended their new fees and fines requirement, saying it’s what the advocates for the proposal themselves were touting to voters on the campaign trail last year. In a request for an advisory opinion from the Florida Supreme Court last week, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis quoted the attorney who supported the amendment telling the Florida Supreme Court in 2017 that “all terms” of the sentence included paying fines and fees.
But advocates for the measure say that there was no mention of felons having to pay off any legal obligations in the ballot language itself.
The new law does allow felons to petition a judge waive fees or fines or convert them to community service hours.
The issue was debated in both chambers of the Legislature earlier this year, but the Democrats’ complaints about the provision fell on deaf ears in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Before voters approved Amendment 4, Florida was one of only three states that prohibited anyone with a felony record from voting. Florida is now one of only eight states that prohibits anyone with a felony record from voting if they still owe legal financial obligations.
A preliminary analysis by University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith estimates that fewer than one in five people in Florida with a felony conviction (other than murder or a sexual offense) who have completed all terms of their sentence are likely to register to vote under the new law, due to outstanding fines, fees or restitution.