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The Fight for Voting Rights in Florida Isn’t Over

By Daniel A. Gross

May 10, 2019

Six months ago, after a ballot measure called Amendment 4 restored the voting rights of Florida citizens with felony convictions, Steve Phalen went online, registered to vote, and got a registration card in the mail. “I had a smile on my face when I got that,” he told me recently.

Phalen and I had first spoken in November, shortly before the amendment passed, with sixty-four per cent of the vote. For nearly a hundred and fifty years, Florida enforced one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, banning anyone who’d been convicted of a felony from ever participating in elections. Amendment 4 allowed citizens to regain the franchise after serving “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” restoring the voting rights of more than a million people. It excluded citizens convicted of murder and sexual offenses. Phalen, who is in his mid-thirties, pled guilty, in 2005, to setting fire to a bar while under the influence of alcohol and antidepressants. (He committed the crime in Wisconsin, but, when he moved to Florida, several years ago, he became subject to its voting laws.) He was ordered to pay restitution, serve a year of house arrest, and complete twelve years of probation, which concluded in 2017.

Recently, Phalen learned that Republicans in the Florida legislature had proposed a new law, Senate Bill 7066, which would require people with felony convictions to pay all fees, fines, and restitution before they can vote. Phalen has paid about ninety thousand dollars in restitution and insurance expenses, he told me, but still owes more than a hundred thousand dollars in civil liens. On April 30th, as the passage of the bill began to seem assured, he texted his wife: “Guess who is no longer eligible to vote in this backward ass state.” The Florida legislature passed the bill on May 3rd. On Tuesday, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, declared his intention to sign it into law.

Hundreds of thousands of people whose voting rights were restored by Amendment 4 are likely to be in the same situation as Phalen. In the mid-two-thousands, the Florida Department of Corrections estimated that twenty per cent of the people under its supervision, and forty per cent of applicants for case-by-case voting-rights restoration, still owed restitution. Florida, like the U.S. as a whole, incarcerates racial minorities at significantly higher rates than whites, and Democrats have denounced S.B. 7066 as a partisan effort to reduce voter turnout in a swing state. Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost the Florida gubernatorial election to DeSantis, characterized it as a “poll tax” that disenfranchises citizens of color. (Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, made the same argument on Twitter.) The Florida congressman Charlie Crist, who worked to restore voting rights while he was the Republican governor of Florida, and is now a Democrat, issued a statement: “The people of Florida voted to support second chances, and the Florida legislature should have respected that. Governor DeSantis should veto this bill, and if not, the courts should find it unconstitutional.”

Barbara Richards is the founder of a reëntry nonprofit called Project 180, which provides educational services in Florida jails and prisons, and which has surveyed several hundreds of incarcerated people about fees, fines, and restitution. The majority of respondents owed money, Richards told me, and many owed thousands of dollars. In 2010, the Brennan Center for Justice noted that, since 1996, Florida had “added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants and, at the same time, eliminated most exemptions for those who cannot pay.” Richards said, “Some people’s voices will never be heard, because their fees are so high. They’re overwhelming.” Like Crist, she believes that S.B. 7066 deliberately flouts the results of November’s vote. “How dare the Legislature subvert the will of the people, who made it very clear what they want,” she said. “The message is, your voice doesn’t matter.”

When DeSantis announced his plan to sign the bill, during an event at the University of Miami, he argued that it was not, in fact, in conflict with Amendment 4. The text of the amendment, he noted, requires citizens to complete “all terms of their sentence” before voting. “You can be sentenced with a fine,” DeSantis said. “That’s what the constitutional provision said. I think the Legislature just implemented that as it’s written.” (When I sent questions to the governor’s office, a member of his staff directed me to a video of the event on Facebook.) S.B. 7066, according to this interpretation, resolves an argument that Republicans have been making since December, when the outgoing Secretary of State, under the administration of Governor Rick Scott, claimed that there was “confusion” in the text of Amendment 4.

Advocates for voting rights generally find this argument specious. But there are supporters of the movement for voting-rights restoration who believe that Amendment 4 left the door open for such pushback by not going far enough. Paul Wright founded the monthly Prison Legal News, in 1990, while he was incarcerated in Washington. He believes that Amendment 4 campaigners, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, were themselves responsible for S.B. 7066. He pointed to an exchange, from 2017, between a justice on the Florida Supreme Court and Jon Mills, a prominent attorney and former Democratic lawmaker who advocated for Amendment 4. The court, which was charged with reviewing the ballot measure, asked Mills about fees and fines, and Mills said that citizens would need to resolve those debts before they could vote. “Not only were fines and fees discussed, they were part of the plan,” Wright wrote, in an e-mail.

Kirk Bailey, the political director at the A.C.L.U. of Florida, disputed this. He said that Mills’s remarks were about only one category of fees and fines, which must be paid before a person can complete their parole, and not others, such as civil liens. As for the language of Amendment 4, Bailey said that the way it was formulated “seemed to be consistent with how Florida approaches criminal-justice issues, and it was part of feedback we were getting at the time.” Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, also defended the text of Amendment 4, saying that a word limit made it impossible to define every provision. (The summary description of an amendment cannot exceed seventy-five words.) When I asked him about S.B. 7066, he emphasized that most of Amendment 4 remains intact. “It’s not ideal,” he admitted, speaking of the new law. “However, we are a little encouraged, because we were able to work with Republican and Democratic legislators to at least try to improve the bill.” Meade said that his coalition fought successfully to grant judges the power to excuse debts or to convert them into community-service hours.

Many Floridians, including Phalen, didn’t think of fines, fees, and restitution when they decided to support Amendment 4. Kim Lawrance, a self-described independent voter, and the mother of a teen-ager who is incarcerated for robbing another teen’s home, told me, “We thought that they would be able to vote, that it would just be that easy.” Her daughter will become eligible to cast her first ballot when she is thirty-five, after ten years in prison, ten years of probation, plus payments of six hundred dollars in restitution, a thousand dollars in fees and fines, and several thousand dollars to cover the costs, per Florida law, of her own probation.

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