Florida Lawmakers Move to Complicate Voting Rights Restoration for Ex-Felons

July 3, 2019 by Dan McCue

In 2018, 65 percent of Floridians who went to the polls supported a measure aimed at restoring the voting rights of non-violent ex-felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.”

On Friday night, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed Senate Bill 7066, a bill that undermined the passage of the popular ballot initiative by making the restoration of an ex-felon’s voting rights contingent on their having paid off any debt stemming from their crime.

The bill says an ex-felon wishing to restore voting rights can either pay all financial penalties included in their sentence, or have their financial penalties excused by a judge or converted to community service hours.

With that, a new legal battle was joined. Within hours, the Brennan Center for Justice, ACLU of Florida, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had filed suit against the state, accusing DeSantis and other officials of creating wealth-based hurdles to voting and had effectively voided a popularly-approved ballot initiative.

Since then at least three other lawsuits have been filed challenging the new payment requirements.

About 1.4 million Floridians are estimated to be eligible to regain voting rights under the ballot initiative, Amendment 4, which went into effect in January. Backers of the measure called it the single largest expansion of voting rights in the United States since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971.

But Republican state legislators claimed the initiative, as written, needed to be clarified before it could be implemented. That led to the introduction of a number of measures in the state legislature that shared one common feature — they all in one way or another limited the number of ex-felons who would be able to register to vote before the 2020 election.

After bowing to pressure from voting rights groups, the legislators settled on Senate Bill 7066, a grab bag elections bill that was amended to include the new financial obligations for ex-felons.

Critics Call It A Poll Tax

Critics of the bill DeSantis signed into law say it is nothing more than a modern day poll tax aimed squarely at a population that is disproportionately black and low income.

They contend the new law punishes people based on their wealth by forcing those convicted of felonies to repay all fines, fees, and other monetary penalties associated with their convictions, or face disenfranchisement.

They also note that people often owe significant debt that they simply cannot pay after they complete their sentence — debt that the new law seeks to raise as a barrier to Amendment 4’s restoration of the right to vote.

“There can be no mistaking the racial and class implications of this regressive new legislation,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program.

“Florida legislators are trying to do an end run around the unmistakable message that Florida voters delivered at the ballot box in November. This legislation flies in the face of what Floridians voted for and those politicians know it.”

The Brennan Center, along with the ACLU and NAACP has filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on behalf of 10 individuals, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Orange County Branch of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“Over 5 million Floridians cast their ballot in favor of Amendment 4, which removed a 150-year Jim Crow vestige that permanently disenfranchised people with felony convictions from voting,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“Simply put, SB 7066 thwarts the will of these voters by basing voter restoration on the ability to pay financial obligations,” Aden said. “This law will disproportionately impact black Floridians with a felony conviction, who face the intersecting barriers of accessing jobs in a state with long-standing wealth and employment disparities.”

Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, agreed.

“The ability to vote should not be based on the size of one’s bank account,” Tilley said. “Floridians took it upon themselves to rid Florida of its Jim Crow past after state lawmakers refused to do anything about the state’s broken enfranchisement system for decades.

“Now, state lawmakers have chosen to return to Florida’s Jim Crow past by undermining Amendment 4 and conditioning the right to vote that was restored to 1.4 million Floridians on the ability to pay. It’s wrong, and it’s unconstitutional,” he said.

Legal Battles Begin

As of Monday, three others lawsuits have been filed challenging the new law. One was filed by a private citizen, Kelvin Jones, a 46-year-old resident of Hillsborough County, Florida who is disabled, cannot work, and therefore can’t afford to pay the $52,000 in fines and fees from his drug trafficking conviction.

Another lawsuit has been filed by the Campaign Legal Center, and the fourth was filed Monday morning by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While each lawsuit differs in its particulars, all four ultimately cite violations of the First, 14th, and 15th Amendments; the constitutional prohibition on poll taxes; and the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Bonnie Raysor, the lead plaintiff in the Campaign Legal Center lawsuit, earned a college degree in finance after serving her sentence and is now an office manager in Pompano Beach, Florida and a Sunday school teacher.

“This is personal,” Raysor said. “For me, it’s a poll tax plain and simple. I served my time and am working to pay off my fees, and I don’t think that should prevent me from voting. Now I won’t be able to vote for 12 more years, unless I win the lottery.”

Rosemary McCoy, one of the plaintiffs in the Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit, also expressed frustration over with Florida’s state lawmakers.

“We work, we pay taxes, but we don’t have a voice in our communities,” McCoy said. “We should have the right to hold our elected officials accountable and participate in our local political process.”

Mark Gaber, director, trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center, said what Florida has done by “restricting one’s ability to vote based on the size of their bank account” is create two separate classes of citizens.

“The act of voting integrates people into their community after their release from incarceration,” Gaber said. “That’s something we should all want, and undoubtedly that is why Floridians voted for rights restoration. But even if the legislature and Governor DeSantis disagree, the Constitution does not permit them to withhold the right to vote from someone because they are poor.”

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