By Lori Rozsa
The historic effort to allow more than a million felons in Florida to vote hit a roadblock Friday when Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill limiting which can register.
Voters in the state overwhelmingly passed an amendment in November that restored voting rights to those with felony records — as many as 1.5 million people. The result would have been the largest expansion of voting rights in the country in a half-century.
But the Republican-controlled state legislature, saying that it needed to give “guidance” to elections officials, voted in May to require felons who have served their sentences to pay all court-ordered fines, fees and restitution.
DeSantis, who opposed the felon voting rights amendment, signed the legislation into law late in the day Friday, one day before his deadline to sign passed.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, joined by other civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed a lawsuit Friday night to block the law.
“Over a million Floridians were supposed to reclaim their place in the democratic process, but some politicians clearly feel threatened by greater voter participation. They cannot legally affix a price tag to someone’s right to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement.
Crist on voting rights law: Ex-felons 'will finally have their rights restored'In January 2019, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) hailed a new state law that was expected to restore voting rights to more than a million former felons. (Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/Reuters)
Republicans who supported the bill said any fines or restitution need to be paid before a felon has completely satisfied his or her sentence.
The group behind the amendment that restored voting rights to felons launched a campaign to help pay fines for people who can’t afford them.
“Our initial goal is $3 million,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “We know a lot of people have financial hardships, and we want to rally around them and help them take this next step.”
Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the group estimates that about 800,000 felons do not have outstanding fines or fees to pay and will be able to register to vote.
“We’re reaching out to people to let them know they can register,” Volz said.
Approximately 2,000 felons registered to vote within the three months of Amendment 4 taking effect in January, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Meade and Volz were among those who registered to vote the first day they were eligible.
The group is working out a system for how to help people who can’t afford the fines. Meade said changes made to Amendment 4 won’t stop former felons from voting.
“We don’t look at this as a roadblock,” Meade said. “Amendment 4 did what it was supposed to do. It destroyed Jim Crow policies that created a lifetime ban for people with felony convictions from voting in the state of Florida. What we see now are just some pebbles in the road, and we just need to walk over them.”