By Amy Gardner
The largest expansion of voting eligibility in the country since the elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests in the 1960s suffered a setback Friday when Republican legislators in Florida voted to limit the scope of a new constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most convicted felons.
The measure, which would require felons to pay all court-ordered fines, fees and restitution before their eligibility to vote is restored, quickly drew accusations of voter suppression.
Supporters of what is known in Florida as Amendment 4 said the law effectively reinstitutes a poll tax by requiring felons to satisfy financial obligations before they can vote again.
“This does not comport with what voters intended when they passed Amendment 4, and equally important, it does not comport with the Florida Constitution,” state Rep. Joseph Geller (D) said during the televised debate in the Florida House on Friday. “This will actually physically impose financial barriers against voting. I don’t think that’s the right solution.”
After the measure passed both chambers along mostly party lines, attention quickly turned to Gov. Ron DeSantis. The first-term Republican previously urged lawmakers to take up the legislation, amid protests from advocates who had helped pass the amendment overwhelmingly in November with support from nearly 65 percent of voters.
The Florida Democratic Party issued a statement Friday saying that DeSantis would become known as the “Jim Crow” governor, a reference to the era of racially discriminatory laws that were in place in Southern states until the 1960s. Democrats are planning a statewide media blitz to pressure the governor to veto the bill.
DeSantis has declined to weigh in publicly on the bill.
“He understands the intricacies of the process and also wants to respect the will of the voters who passed the amendment,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferré said in an interview. Once he receives it, DeSantis will have seven days to sign or veto the bill.
Republicans said their goal was only to guide implementation of a sparsely worded amendment that calls for the restoration of voting rights for felons who have fulfilled the terms of their sentences, including probation and parole. The amendment, which went into effect Jan. 8, excludes those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses.
Although supporters said the amendment is “self-executing,” Republicans said it requires definitions for murder, sex offenses and terms of sentence. One early GOP proposal prompted an uproar by broadly defining sexual offenses to include — in addition to violent crimes — video voyeurism, lewd exhibition, prostitution and locating an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school.
The measure that passed includes only those crimes that qualify a defendant for the state’s sex offender registry. Republicans also noted that they softened the bill to allow financial obligations to be waived or converted into community-service hours or civil liens, with a judge’s or victim’s permission.
State Rep. James Grant (R), who sponsored the legislation in the House, denied that the measure imposes the equivalent of a poll tax. “This is not a scenario where somebody has to come up with money to vote,” he said on the House floor Friday.
That did not satisfy his critics, who wondered how election administrators would determine what a felon owes, how the court system would handle the influx of requests for mercy regarding financial obligations, and how defendants, particularly indigent ones, would pay for an attorney to help them through the process.
Critics of the legislation said it was too soon to say whether they will sue to block it. “For now, we will continue to move forward in the spirit of creating a more inclusive and vibrant democracy for all by seeking to register qualified returning citizens in Florida,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, using a common term for felons who have completed their sentences.
It is not clear how many felons will actually choose to vote, nor how many would be unable to do so under the bill passed Friday. State Rep. Wengay Newton (D) said on the House floor Friday that as many as half of the 1.4 million felons believed to be eligible to vote under Amendment 4 could have financial obligations that could curtail that eligibility.
Grant said he did not know how many felons are affected; he said he remained “intentionally blind to the data” to avoid accusations that the measure was motivated by politics.
According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, as many as one-third of newly eligible felons in Florida are African American, a demographic group that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. But Republicans cited studies showing that overall, Florida felons come from all demographic groups. In addition, virtually everyone agrees it will be difficult to register and turn out this population in large numbers for elections.
Still, even a fraction of the number of potentially eligible felons could sway an election in a swing state where elections are often decided by slender margins. Donald Trump, for instance, won Florida over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a margin of about 113,000 votes out of 9.4 million cast. Last year, DeSantis’s margin over former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum (D) in the gubernatorial race was about 32,000, and Republican Rick Scott defeated incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson by 10,000 votes in the Senate race.
Most states curtail felons from voting in some way. Until Amendment 4 passed, Florida’s lifetime voting ban for all felons was the most restrictive such law in the country. It was also one of the oldest, made into law 150 years ago as the 15th Amendment, granting black men the right to vote, was being enacted.
The measure to change that gained the support of a broad coalition of conservatives and liberals, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Koch network, voting groups and Christian conservatives. In a year when races for governor and U.S. Senate were decided with razor-thin margins, the amendment’s overwhelming winning margin set it apart in a perennially divided state.
DeSantis and Scott opposed Amendment 4.