By: Mark Joseph Stern (Slate)
In November, a supermajority of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to former felons who’ve completed their sentences. On Tuesday, Florida Republicans advanced a bill that will strip hundreds of thousands of these individuals of the franchise once again.
That measure, which GOP lawmakers voted out of committee along party lines, is a direct assault on Amendment 4, which altered the state constitution to reinstate felons’ right to vote. It is an astonishing rejection of Floridians’ overwhelming support for the amendment and a flagrant power-grab designed to suppress potential Democratic votes. And because the Florida Legislature, governorship, and Supreme Court are dominated by Republicans, the bill stands an excellent chance of becoming law, reversing the biggest voting rights victory of the 21st century so far.
Shortly after the 2018 election, it became clear that Republican lawmakers would attempt to undermine Amendment 4. By its own terms, the law is self-executing; it requires no implementation by the Legislature. Floridians who have completed a sentence for a felony conviction should now be permitted to vote, so long as they did not commit homicide or a sex offense. Yet GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis (who opposed the amendment) and his allies in the Legislature quickly asserted that it is not self-executing and requires “implementing language.” That’s not true, but it allowed Republicans to curtail the amendment’s impact under the guise of “implementing” it. Since November, the key question was how brazenly GOP lawmakers would seek to subvert the amendment: Would they tinker around the edges, or gut the law entirely?
We learned the answer on Tuesday, when the House of Representatives’ Criminal Justice Subcommittee passed a bill designed to sabotage Amendment 4. The amendment unambiguously declares that “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” But the new bill adds a new hurdle: Felons may not register to vote until they’ve paid all court costs, fines, and fees associated with their sentences.
To understand why this provision is a poison pill, it’s important to understand the system of “cash-register justice” practiced by Florida and many other states. To finance its criminal justice system, Florida imposes both fines and “user fees” on defendants upon conviction. Individuals may be fined up to $500,000 for their crime, then saddled with a mind-boggling array of administrative fees. Defendants must pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to fund court costs, “crime prevention” programs, and local jails. They must pay a fee to apply for a public defender, to receive medical treatment in prison, to reinstate a suspended driver’s license, and to participate in drug abuse treatment. Those who receive probation must pay “surcharges” to fund their supervision or room-and-board at a halfway house, as well as electronic monitoring and urinalysis.
Florida calls some of these fines “restitution,” but they’re a far cry from the standard definition of that concept. Typically, restitution requires defendants to compensate their victims and constitutes part of their criminal sentence. But Florida stretches restitution to encompass fines paid to the state to subsidize courts, county governments, police departments, and investigators. Meanwhile, the Florida Constitution compels county clerks of the court to finance their offices through “user fees.” These assessments are separate from a defendant’s criminal sentence—they’re a budgetary mandate, a tax on defendants to keep the courts running.
Here’s the unspoken but well-documented truth about these fines and fees: Almost no one ever pays them in full. Former felons already struggle to find employment upon completion of their prison terms, and few can afford to tithe a large portion of their salary to the state. According to WLRN, Florida courts levied $1 billion in felony fines between 2013 and 2018; each year, only 19 percentof that money was paid back. The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers (FCCC), an association that releases annual summaries of assessments, labeled 83 percent of court fines levied between 2014 and 2018 as having “minimal collections expectations.” That indicates that there is little chance that the money will ever be paid.
"Even as the state acknowledges that indigent defendants cannot pay these costs, it continues to assess and track eye-popping fines."
Even as the state acknowledges that indigent defendants cannot pay these costs, it continues to assess and track eye-popping fines. In Miami-Dade County, there are more than $278 million in outstanding court fines; that number is $195.8 million in Palm Beach County, which charges interest on court debt. Florida law permits private debt collectors to recover this money from defendants—and secure a commission of 25 to 40 percent of the fine. These collection agencies spend large sums of money lobbying the Legislature to maintain the current system and keep former felons permanently indebted.
If Republicans’ subversion of Amendment 4 becomes law—which seems likely given the GOP’s stranglehold on power—how many felons will suddenly lose their voting rights again? Right now, roughly 1.4 million Floridians should be enfranchised under Amendment 4. Once the GOP bill passes, that number will drop precipitously. If the bill only affected individuals with unpaid fines that the state calls “restitution,” then it would disenfranchise roughly 540,000 people. But the measure goes much farther, encompassing any “financial obligation arising from a felony conviction,” including “user fees.” In 2018, the FCCC reported that the collection rate for fines and fees in circuit criminal courts, where most felony cases take place, was a dismal 20.55 percent. If as many as 79.45 percent of felons still owe these debts, the Republican bill could disenfranchise 1,112,300 people.
Florida Democrats have condemned the GOP measure as an unconstitutional poll tax, which is descriptively accurate. But there’s little hope that the federal courts will strike it down, since the U.S. Supreme Court has tolerated other measures that impose heavy burdens and costs on voters. The most straightforward challenge would arise under Amendment 4 itself, since lawmakers are violating its plain text by denying voting rights to felons who’ve completed their sentence. But Desantis appointed three justices to the Florida Supreme Court during his first weeks in office, creating a 6–1 conservative majority that is probably unwilling to enforce the new amendment vigorously. Former felons are boxed in by a governor, Legislature, and judiciary that all appear hostile to their constitutional rights.
What’s happening in Florida right now may be appalling, but it is not surprising. Time and time again, Republicans have suppressed votes to depress turnoutamong Democrats. They obviously fear that former felons, who are disproportionately racial minorities, will swing left. (Former GOP Gov. Rick Scott, now a senator, refused to restore most felons’ voting rights—and favored whites when he did.) In November, Florida voters attempted to put a permanent end to this injustice. It took years for civil rights advocates to pass Amendment 4 and remove the stain of Jim Crow from Florida’s constitution. Just four months later, Republicans are poised to cut the heart out of the signal voting rights triumph of the century so far.