May 3, 2019
NORTH MIAMI, Fla. — In November, Florida voters approved a groundbreaking ballot measure that would restore voting rights for up to 1.5 million people with felony convictions. But the Republican-led Legislature voted on Friday to impose a series of sharp restrictions that could prevent tens of thousands of them from ever reaching the ballot box.
In a move that critics say undermines the spirit of what voters intended, thousands of people with serious criminal histories will be required to fully pay back fines and fees to the courts before they could vote. The new limits would require potential new voters to settle what may be tens of thousands of dollars in financial obligations to the courts, effectively pricing some people out of the ballot box.
“Basically, they’re telling you, ‘If you have money, you can vote. If you don’t have money, you can’t,’” said Patrick Penn, 42, who spent 15 years in prison for strong-arm robbery and a violent burglary. He said he does not know whether he owes money to the court, but worries it could now prove a complication when he gets ready to cast a ballot. “That’s not what the people voted for.”
With the House voting 67-42 along party lines on Friday to endorse the new restrictions, the legislation goes next to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had called on the Legislature to set additional standards for registering ex-felons to vote.
The vast majority of criminal defendants are poor when they are arrested and even poorer after they are released from prison.
The new restrictions have been attacked by civil rights groups and some of the initiative’s backers as an exercise in Republican power politics, driven by fears that people with felony convictions are mostly liberals who could reshape the electorate ahead of presidential elections in 2020 and beyond. Republicans have dominated Florida’s state government for more than two decades, but elections are often decided by a fraction of a percentage point.
Republicans said the restrictions are needed to clarify how the ballot measure, known as Amendment 4, should be put into practice. They cited the text of the amendment itself as requiring a rigorous interpretation of what constitutes a completed felony sentence and said politics was not their concern.
“Some have taken the position that this amendment will have some massive political impact one way or the other,” Representative James W. Grant, a Tampa Republican who sponsored the House legislation, said on Friday. “The outcomes will be what they may.”
Restoring voting rights to those who have completed felony sentences has become a national issue, with most states over time loosening or lifting barriers that limited access to the polls — so much so that, at a recent town hall, the Democratic candidates for president were asked whether even prisoners, not just former ones, should be allowed to vote.
But Florida had the highest number of people disenfranchised because of their criminal records. When nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, the momentous result was greeted as a historic civil rights victory in a state where African-Americans were disproportionately disenfranchised. The measure left just two other states, Iowa and Kentucky, with laws that prohibit anyone with a felony record from voting.
Pressed for time as they near the end of the annual session, senators on Thursday afternoon tacked the new repayment requirements onto a previously unrelated bill that addressed some of the elections problems that surfaced during last year’s recount. The surprise legislative maneuver forced Democrats who might have otherwise favored the elections bill to oppose it. The State House had earlier endorsed a bill that included the strict repayment provisions.
But as part of a compromise late Thursday between House and Senate Republicans, people with felony convictions would have ways to become eligible to vote other than just full repayment of fines and fees. They could ask a judge to waive financial obligations or convert them to community service. The Senate had initially hoped to be more lenient, and it appeared that the compromise in any case would leave a large number of potential voters unable to register.
“My heart is in a different place, and I would love to go farther,” Senator Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said before the vote on Thursday, invoking his Christian faith. “It should be our place to always try to seek mercy over sacrifice. So we will continue to work toward that goal.”
The final debate on the House floor on Friday lasted more than two hours, with black Democrats emphasizing that felons had been barred from voting in the first place in Florida as part of racist Jim Crow laws enacted during Reconstruction. Present in the House gallery was Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, who has won national acclaim for his work.
Political scientists who study voter registration in Florida have said that re-engaging previously disenfranchised felons into the democratic process takes time and effort, and that any increase in the state’s voter rolls would be gradual and would probably follow existing trends in which most new voters in the state register without party affiliation.
Mr. Penn, the ex-prisoner, said he registered to vote as a Democrat earlier this year. When he got out in 2017, a return to normal life proved elusive. Employers hired him, only to let him go soon after learning more about his criminal history. He could not afford to move out of his parents’ house. He had hoped at least for a chance to help choose the nation’s leaders and have a say in how his city is run.
“The voting thing is the most important,” Mr. Penn said. “That’s what creates that voice for people like ex-felons.”
Mr. DeSantis said while campaigning last year that he hoped lawmakers would better define which felony convictions would prevent someone from voting, though he has not publicly weighed in on the compromise reached in the Legislature. Amendment 4 did not apply to people convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
Lawmakers did that and then went further, also delving into the financial obligations attached to criminal cases. Without their guidance, legislators said, local court clerks and the state’s corrections department and elections division would struggle to maintain uniform standards for restoring voting rights.
Republican lawmakers say they want as many people as possible to be eligible to vote. They noted that the proponents of Amendment 4 said in court testimony and campaign websites ahead of the election that court fines and fees would be repaid.
“They’ve tried to walk this back,” Mr. Brandes said in an interview.
Civil rights organizations, however, counter that legislators went too far, and that the more than five million Floridians who voted for the ballot measure did not intend for court debts to become an exception to the right to vote. The text of Amendment 4 said voting rights would be automatically restored for felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”
“This is a great big slap in the face to the voters and a way to discourage people from participating in the process,” said Micah W. Kubic, the executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s a stark disconnect between the joy and jubilation in November compared to folks now trying to do things in Tallahassee when no one is paying attention.”
“On the national stage, they’re debating should we allow people who are in prison to vote, but not us — we’re kicking and screaming,” Senator Perry E. Thurston Jr., a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said in an impassioned floor speech on Thursday opposing the bill.
Some former felons in Florida have already cast ballots in local elections. The legislation grants any of those people who might now be made ineligible to vote immunity from prosecution.
Legislators long resisted calls to expand voting rights for Florida felons, choosing to act only after voters approved Amendment 4, which received more votes than any single candidate in November.
The new restrictions will almost certainly be met with legal challenges already being prepared by civil rights groups. Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who took office in January, has appointed three new justices to the state’s high court, shifting its balance toward conservatives. A federal lawsuit also appears likely.
Restitution, fines and fees are often turned into a lien, which records the debt but converts it from a criminal to a civil matter. The legislation adopted on Thursday specifies that conversion to a civil lien is not enough to make someone with a felony conviction eligible to vote. The law would allow former felons to go before a judge — no matter how long ago their case was closed — and ask for the lien to be waived or converted to community service, or the victim could forgive repayment of the restitution.
The requirement to repay restitution in full would leave people like Coral Nichols, who was ordered to pay $190,000 when she was convicted of grand theft and wrongful misuse of identity in 2005, unable to register to vote “unless I won the lottery,” she said.
Ms. Nichols served four years and seven months in state prison, followed by nearly 10 years of probation that ended just last week. She has paid $100 toward her restitution every month, she said, mailing checks to a post office box for the former employer she stole money from, even after the company closed down. She said she still owes $180,000.
“I’m a contributing member of society,” said Ms. Nichols, 41, who co-founded a nonprofit in Seminole, Fla., to help other people after they are released from incarceration. “I pay taxes. I work in the community. I am a redeemed, reformed, rehabilitated individual, but yet I’m not going to be allowed to vote because I don’t have the money.”