June 28, 2019
MIAMI — Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed into law on Friday significant restrictions to the recently restored voting rights of people with felony convictions, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the state hours later.
The new law requires people with serious criminal histories to fully pay back fines and fees to the courts before they become eligible to vote. In some cases, those costs amount to thousands of dollars.
The A.C.L.U. argued that the new limits would unconstitutionally price some people out of the ballot box and undermine the intent of Florida voters, who last November approved a measure to enfranchise up to 1.5 million former felons.
“There’s no rational basis for treating somebody who can afford to pay fees any differently than treating anybody who can’t afford to pay them,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the A.C.L.U.’s Voting Rights Project. “That’s just distinguishing people’s right to vote based on their wealth.”
[The new restrictions could keep tens of thousands of people from the ballot box.]
Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters backed the measure to enfranchise ex-felons, Amendment 4, which many felt could reshape the electorate of the nation’s largest presidential battleground state. African-Americans, who tend to vote Democratic, have been disproportionately disenfranchised, though the majority of those with felony convictions in Florida are white.
State lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature said they were not motivated by politics when they adopted restrictions to Amendment 4 last month. Instead, they said they needed to clarify how the measure would be put into practice. The text of the amendment itself, they argued, required a strict interpretation of what constitutes the completion of a felony sentence — which includes repaying financial obligations, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, to the courts.
Mr. DeSantis’s office did not issue a statement explaining his decision to sign the bill. But he had promised to do so, and faced a Saturday deadline.
“The controversy, to me, is not really substantive,” Mr. DeSantis told a Miami news station last week. “The people who advocated for this, I mean, they went to the Supreme Court, and they said, ‘Of course, whatever you’re sentenced to, you have to finish — whether that’s incarceration, whether that’s a fine, restitution, probation.’”
Still, the timing of the governor’s action, announced after 6 p.m. on a Friday, seemed intended to draw little attention from Florida voters, more of whom voted for Amendment 4 than for him. Not long afterward, the A.C.L.U. filed its lawsuit in Federal District Court for the Northern District of Florida, joined by the A.C.L.U. of Florida, the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Groups that helped pass Amendment 4 have continued to hold registration drives, trying to add as many ex-felons to the rolls as possible before the new restrictions become effective on Monday. Under Amendment 4, people with felony convictions had been eligible to register as of January. Some of them have already cast ballots in local elections.
[Amendment 4 restored voting rights to more than a million Floridians.]
Among them was Jeff Gruver, 33, one of the plaintiffs in the A.C.L.U. lawsuit. Mr. Gruver, who runs a homeless shelter in Gainesville, Fla., was so eager to vote for the first time in his life that he tried registering right after Election Day in November, only to be rejected because the amendment was not in effect yet. He voted in a mayoral election earlier this year.
“I was so, so excited,” he said. “I went to the polling place, which is right next to my house. I got my I.D. out and, and I even showed them my registration card. I was like, ‘Look at this!’ and they said, ‘You don’t need to show that.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t understand.’”
Mr. Gruver spent about 10 months over several stints in jail for cocaine possession and for violating the terms of his probation. He was addicted to heroin and opiates for about a decade before joining Narcotics Anonymous and getting clean, he said.
Mr. Gruver was assessed $801 in court costs in 2008. He said he cannot afford to make a payment like that.
“I have paid for what I’ve done in more ways than one,” he said.
Another plaintiff, Betty Riddle, who works as a communications assistant at the public defender’s office in Sarasota, Fla., regained her voting rights at 61. She completed her prison sentence in 2002 and now deals with others caught in the criminal justice system.
“I was in hog heaven,” she said. “I thought I would never vote.”
She still owes more than $1,000 in court costs and fees, which she said she cannot afford to pay.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” she said. “It is a poll tax to keep us from voting.”