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Florida Republicans Push to Make Ex-Felons Pay Fees Before They Can Vote

Pastor Wesley Tunstall was one of a number of people who registered to vote in January after Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote for most felons in Florida, went into effect.CreditCreditDan Wagner/Sarasota Herald-Tribune, via Associated Press

By: Karen Zraick (New York Times)

A Florida House panel this week approved a bill that would require former felons to pay fees and fines before having their voting rights restored, prompting criticism from those who say it would undermine a new amendment that allows more than a million former felons to vote again.

Supporters of the bill, approved by the Republican-controlled House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice on Tuesday, contend that it is meant merely to resolve questions over how to put Amendment 4, which voters approved in November, into practice.

But voting rights advocates say the bill would unfairly punish those who are unable to pay and undermine the central objective of the amendment: ending permanent disenfranchisement.

“This bill is just flying directly in the face of what two-thirds of Florida voters said very clearly,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

Since the amendment took effect in January, it has caused some confusion. It did not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, and questions arose about which crimes should be counted in those categories.

More contentious is the financial issue: Would felons be required to pay up for their sentence to be pronounced “completed?”

The bill, which would also clarify the relevant offenses, passed the subcommittee by a vote of 10 to 5, split along party lines, with the Democrats opposed.

The financial question led a Democratic opponent of the bill, Representative Adam Hattersley, to label it “blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” a reference to the fees used to keep African-Americans from voting in the South starting in the 1890s. (African-Americans are disproportionately affected by felony disenfranchisement, though the majority of Floridians with felony convictions are white.)

Representative James Grant, a Republican and the subcommittee’s chairman, who sponsored the bill, disputed that characterization, saying it “diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” The Miami Herald reported. Mr. Grant did not immediately return a call for comment on Wednesday.

Mr. Grant has said that the goal of the bill is to establish a uniform set of criteria to determine who is legally eligible to vote, and that the language reflects what lawyers said while explaining the ballot question language to the state’s Supreme Court.

Politico reported Tuesday that the measure was expected to move easily through the House, and that the Senate was preparing its own bill containing “guidance” on how the amendment should be put into effect. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans. Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, opposed the amendment and has voiced support for legislation on its implementation.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the fight for the amendment, said it opposed the bill because it would broaden the definition of “completion of sentence” beyond what was previously established by the state’s Clemency Board, among other concerns.

“We are hopeful that improvements can be made to this bill that secure bipartisan support before it moves to the next committee,” Desmond Meade, president of the coalition, said in a statement.

“Amendment 4 passed with broad support from people all over the state and from all walks of life,” he sad. “Any legislation proposed should neither limit the rights created by Amendment 4 nor infringe upon the will of Florida voters.”

The matter is especially pernicious in Florida because of the state’s rigid rules on fines and fees, said Ashley Thomas, the Florida director of the nonprofit Fines and Fees Justice Center.

Almost no waivers are granted to the indigent, she said. Fines and fees can rise quickly with late penalties, and can be sent to private collection agencies that add their own hefty surcharges. A 2010 report by the Brennan Center on the Florida court system’s reliance on fees noted that observers had coined a term for it: “cash register justice.”

Julie Ebenstein, a lawyer with the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized the bill as “truly untethered to the text of the amendment.”

“What this will do, in effect, is disenfranchise people who can’t afford to pay all of these obligations,” she said.

Both the Brennan Center and the ACLU acted as consultants to the coalition in drafting Amendment 4, they said.

Phil Telfeyan, executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law, which focuses on economic discrimination, said his organization was considering filing a lawsuit challenging the Florida bill.

People who have recently been released from prison often already face considerable financial challenges, having been out of the work force and having to rebuild their lives, he noted.

“The Legislature is essentially punishing poverty,” Mr. Telfeyan said.

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