Florida Legislature Approves Bill to Create Hurdles for Voting Felons

The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Democratic lawmakers begged him Friday to veto the bill.

Demonstrators protest for felons' voting rights.
(AP/J. Pat Carter)
By Lawrence Mower

The Florida Legislature today approved a narrow interpretation of Amendment 4 in a bill that will likely disenfranchise tens of thousands of felons from voting and undermine the promise of the historic 2018 ballot measure.

The bill is the result of a deal between Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate, who chose to interpret Amendment 4 narrowly by crafting a bill that erects hurdles for felons who want to register to vote. The bill outlines a restoration process that will likely be different throughout the state, raising legal concerns.

The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Democratic lawmakers begged him Friday to veto the bill.

“I call on you now, governor,” Rep. Wengay “Newt” Newton, D-St. Petersburg, pleaded. “Please do the right thing.”

The bill, crafted in the final days of the legislative session, requires felons to pay off all fines, fees and restitution before voting.

But it allows felons to petition a judge to waive those fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours. If the felon owes restitution to a victim, the victim must approve allowing a judge to waive the money or having it converted to community service hours.

It’s a far cry from what the creators of Amendment 4 wanted.

Their amendment was simple, and was intended to overturn a 150-year-old racist law that was successful at keeping black people from voting. The language said felons could vote as long as they’ve completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”

They envisioned the Legislature passing no bill, and felons simply being allowed to vote after serving out their prison and probation time.

But Republican lawmakers rejected that idea, especially after elections supervisors said they wanted some guidance from Tallahassee.

Lawmakers pointed to testimony by a lawyer for Amendment 4 before the Supreme Court and information on the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s website to make the case that “all terms of sentence” includes all court fees, fines and restitution.

What Florida ended up with is a much more complicated — and expensive — system for felons who want to vote, and a system that could be wildly different depending on where the felon was convicted.

Requiring restitution, which goes to repay victims, be repaid before voting is a boondoggle in itself. Some felons don’t know whom they have to repay, either because the victim died, or the business that was victimized closed or was absorbed by another company.

And restitution is one of the few aspects of a criminal case that isn’t tracked. Because no one tracks it, Florida will likely spend millions trying to create such a system so officials can verify if a felon has repaid restitution.

Lawmakers issued another $750,000 to the Commission on Offender Review in next year’s budget to process the potential surge in applications.

And requiring felons to petition a judge for financial relief is complicated, and potentially a burden on the already-stressed court system, one former judge said.

How a felon would navigate the system is also unclear. Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, said he imagines each circuit court would create a form felons can fill out to streamline the process.

And would felons need to hire lawyers to navigate the courts? Brandes said he does not believe so, but Gordon Weekes, the chief assistant public defender in Broward County, said felons almost certainly would.

“You could do it yourself, but navigating the courts pro se is like jousting with a windmill,” Weekes said.

And the system likely excludes two other classes of felons from voting.

The petition process does not apply to people convicted in federal court. So the woman who told lawmakers in March she owes $59 million in restitution, for example, would almost certainly never be able to vote.

And because the bill only applies to Florida’s circuit courts, felons who were convicted in another state have no path to being able to vote.

The bill does do one thing to help felons, however: the burden is on government to prove that a felon has obligations outstanding.

That would help felons who have cases that are decades old and are unable to get proof from the victim that they’ve paid back their restitution.

“This bill does not require an applicant to prove anything,” Grant said. “If we’re not able, as government, to document there is an outstanding term, then the tie goes to the applicant.”

State Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, feared the bill puts too much power in the hands of judges around the state who could wield that power disproportionately. He compared it to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“I have a feeling we’re going to come back next year — or later this year — and we’re going to be de-glitching a lot of this,” Grieco said. “We haven’t created the right framework to get this right. I think this is far from a perfect product.”

(c)2019 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)