When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation enacting the law to implement the voter-approved felon voting rights ballot initiative, he criticized the law for giving violent felons who have completed their sentence the ability to vote, calling it a “mistake.”
Now, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union says that admission is proof that the governor, and the Republican-controlled Legislature which passed the bill, always wanted to prevent the constitutional amendment from fully coming into effect.
Approved by more than five million Floridians last fall with more than 64 percent support, Amendment 4 calls for the state to automatic restore voting rights for all felons who have completed their sentences (excluding murderers and those convicted of sex crimes).
The Republican Legislature then stepped in and passed a law saying felons can only get the right to vote after they pay all fines, fees and restitution to victims. That provision has spurred five separate lawsuits.
“Amendment 4 restores – without regards to the wishes of the victims – voting rights to violent felons, including felons convicted of attempted murder, attempted robbery and kidnapping, as long as those felons completed all terms of their sentence,” DeSantis wrote. “I think this was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders.”
Daniel Tilley, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says it shows that the Republicans have, all along, been scheming about ways to undermine voters’ will in the felon voting rights initiative.
“It wasn’t about implementing anything, it was about restricting,” Tilley said. “It was about taking back what the voters wanted to give. He (DeSantis) thinks it was a ‘mistake’ to pass Amendment 4, and he’s doing what he can, and the Legislature is doing what they can, to prevent it from coming into full effect.”
While supporters of the amendment said the bill was “self-implementing” and didn’t need legislative language, supervisors of elections in the state disagreed, saying they needed more clarification to determine who was eligible to vote. That led GOP lawmakers to introduce their bill.
Speaking on Saturday afternoon before the Florida Democratic LGBTA Caucus in Tampa, Tilley attacked the law on a number of fronts, claiming that it’s unconstitutional because it denies citizens the right to vote based on their ability to pay.
“Lack of wealth is an arbitrary decision,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to take away someone’s right to vote because they lack wealth.”
Tilley also said that the fact that there is not a central data system where citizens who served their time can easily discover how much they owe in fines, fees or restitution could violate the First Amendment. That’s because everyone has a constitutional right to engage in voter registration activity, he said, but the new law deters that “because it creates this onerous system under which it is very difficult for some folks – if not impossible – to determine if you, in fact, can validly and lawfully register.”
Though Amendment 4 went into effect on January 8, the bill that now implements the law has only been in effect for a few weeks. Tilley said that more than 2,000 felons registered to vote between January and March. Forty-four percent of those new voters were black, he said, and made $14,000 less “than the average Florida voter.”
The ACLU is among several groups and individuals suing over the new law. The Campaign Legal Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center and attorney Michael Steinberg have also filed lawsuits over the measure. And the Brennan Center of Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund are included in the same lawsuit with the ACLU of Florida.