by Gray Rohrer
TALLAHASSEE – A law passed by the Legislature this year requiring ex-felons to pay all outstanding debts before restoring their right to vote could prevent about 80 percent of ex-convicts from voting, a federal court judge was told Monday.
The testimony came during a hearing in a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups and ex-felons fighting the law.
Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, testified that he analyzed information from the Florida Department of Corrections and from 58 out of the 67 clerks of court offices to determine who would be ineligible to vote because of the law.
“About four out of five still have some type of legal financial obligation,” Smith said.
His study found that more than 500,000 ex-felons owe some form of fine, fee or other court costs that would have to be paid under the new law in order to vote. Most of them owe between $500 and $5,000.
The law was passed to set guidelines for Amendment 4, which allowed ex-felons to have their voting rights restored after they have completed their sentences. It was passed last year by 65 percent of voters. The amendment does not apply to those convicted of murder or sex crimes.
Before the amendment, ex-felons would have to wait five years after the end of their sentence before applying to restore their rights, and a Cabinet panel could reject their application for any reason.
But Republican lawmakers included a requirement in the new law that all ex-felons must pay fees, court costs, restitution and other costs related to their sentence before being able to register to vote again. The move angered Democrats and advocates who pushed for Amendment 4, who likened it to a “poll tax,” a Jim Crow-era law designed to keep African-Americans from voting.
“The law serves no legitimate purpose. It won’t make people more able to pay, just less able to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups who brought the lawsuit, told the court in her opening statement.
Lawyers for the state countered that the groups who argued in favor of Amendment 4 said that the payment of fines and fees would be included as part of the sentence, so the Legislature was only following the will of the voters.
“What the plaintiffs really seek is a [voting rights] restoration scheme with no penalties,” said Nick Primrose, deputy general counsel for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction to delay the law while it is being fought in court. Ebenstein argued if otherwise eligible voters are prevented from voting in next year’s elections, or even in municipal elections this year, it would cause irreparable harm, one of the requirements for a court to issue an injunction.
After the hearing, Ebenstein noted that Monday was the registration deadline for municipal elections around the state held this November. So some otherwise eligible voters who didn’t register, either because they had outstanding debts or because they were confused about whether they had to pay, already won’t be able to vote, no matter the judge’s ruling.
“If you didn’t register by today, if you couldn’t sort out what you owe, if you couldn’t resolve a discrepancy . . . you’re disenfranchised,” Ebenstein told reporters. “So it’s not something we can wait around for.”
The judge could rule as early as Tuesday, after both sides make their closing arguments.