‘The voters were not heard:’ ACLU considers legal action on felon voting rights legislation

People march in Jacksonville to support Amendment 4 in 2018. Florida Rights Restoration Coalition photo.

A coalition of groups is urging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto legislation that requires felons to pay all fines and restitution before they can register to vote.

DeSantis says he will sign the bill, and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida says his group is considering legal action.

“The ACLU and a variety of others are certainly exploring the litigative options,” said Kirk Bailey, the political director of the civil liberties group in Florida. “There are elements of the bill that are in our view unconstitutional and present significant opportunities for challenge, so we’re evaluating those right now.”

Republicans are under criticism that new requirements to make felons pay before voting upends the will of voters who approved Amendment 4 last fall.

Over five million Floridians voted for Amendment 4 last November, more than voted for DeSantis, U.S. Senator Rick Scott, or anyone else on the statewide ballot.

The ballot language for Amendment 4 said that the measure would allow all felons (except murderers or sex criminals), to get their voting rights back automatically when they complete their sentences.

But Legislature voted that “completion of sentence” is defined as the payment of all fines, fees and restitution costs. The law allows felons to apply for a waiver if the victim or a judge “forgives” the restitution, or if felons participate in a yet-to-be created program that would allow them to perform community service in lieu of payment.

The ACLU of Florida’s Bailey added that, with the Legislature returning back to Tallahassee later this year for committee meetings in advance of the 2020 session’s January kickoff, citizens will be able to “express their hope that the Legislature will roll back their provisions of the Amendment 4 bill if the governor doesn’t veto it.”

“We’ll certainly be the pushing legislators to reconsider the policies that they put in place,” he added.

“It is quite clear that the Florida Legislature is trying to circumvent the will of Floridians who voted overwhelmingly to restore voting rights and did not intend to condition access to the ballot on a person’s ability to pay,” said Eriza Sweren-Becker, Voting Rights Counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice based in New York City.

Participants on a media conference call this week also assailed the Legislature on other issues passed in the just completed 61-day session. Those include lawmakers’ support for anti-immigration “sanctuary city” policies, arming school teachers, changing the rules on petition gathering for citizen-led constitutional amendments, and approving funding for a multi-billion toll-road project that they say threatens ecologically fragile areas of the state.

Scott McCoy with the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund cited those issues when he said that the majority in the Legislature “thumbed its nose at the clearly expressed will of the people and their prerogative to amend the Constitution without relying on unresponsive and out-of-touch Tallahassee politicians, who care more about retaining power and doing the bidding of special interests that fund their campaigns.”

Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said that the majority of state lawmakers acted like “authoritarians” throughout the session, reflecting what she says was “a clear disregard for the democratic process.”

Specifically, Brigham recounted countless committee meetings during the session which had standing room only crowds of people wanting to testify, only to have the committee chairman or chairwoman not even bring up an issue like Amendment 4 voting rights or arming schools until the meeting was about to end. Many members of the public – regardless of where they stood on the subject in question – were limited to only one minute to speak.

“The voters were not heard,” Brigham said.




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