Florida’s Amendment 4 legislation is a mess, felons and county officials testify

The Florida Legislature’s bill cracking down on Amendment 4 has created a mess, with felons uncertain whether they can vote, clerks of court unable to confirm whether felons are eligible to vote and election supervisors using voter registration forms that are different from those used by the secretary of state.

That’s the conclusion after the first day of arguments in a federal hearing challenging a bill adopted by the Legislature this year curtailing Amendment 4, which was supposed to restore the right to vote to more than a million felons.

The bill required felons to pay back all court fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote, conditions that critics have called a “poll tax.”

Various groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging the bill. They’re asking U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to temporarily stop the bill until the case can be resolved. Closing arguments are expected in court in Tallahassee Tuesday, with a ruling expected later.

Hinkle gave little indication on Monday how he’d rule on the ACLU’s request. But he expressed deep skepticism about one change lawmakers made: to the state’s voter registration form.

The change was one of several that lawmakers made this year to Amendment 4, the historic legislation that restored the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms of sentence.”

Before Amendment 4, the state’s voter registration form simply asked new voters that if they’re a felon, they affirm that they’ve had their right to vote restored. (The state’s clemency board could restore voting rights prior to Amendment 4.)

Lawmakers changed the form this year to require new voters to check one of three boxes:

(a) that they’ve never been convicted of a felony;

(b) if they have been convicted of a felony, to affirm they’ve had their right to vote restored by the state’s clemency board; or,

(c) if they have been convicted of a felony, to affirm they’ve had their right to vote restored by “s. 4 , Art. VI of the State Constitution.”

Hinkle noted that the language is confusing to the average person. He doubted whether any of the more two dozen lawyers in his courtroom knew what “s. 4 , Art. VI of the State Constitution” was before they were hired to work on the case. (It’s a legal citation of Amendment 4.)

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told Hinkle that his office was still using the old form to register voters, even though the Florida Secretary of State is using the new form.

Earley agreed with Hinkle’s view on the new form.

“I think it’s very confusing, yes,” Earley said.

Hinkle then questioned whether the changes were an attempt by lawmakers to discourage people from registering to vote.

“If you were trying to discourage people from registering, would you choose language like this?” Hinkle asked.

Earley nodded and said, “Yes.”

Hinkle’s comments capped a day of testimony from former felons and election officials that exposed the confusion surrounding the Legislature’s Amendment 4 bill, which took effect on July 1.

Amendment 4 was supposed to reverse a 150-year-old law meant to keep black people from voting. It required nearly all felons to complete “all terms of sentence including parole or probation” first, though.

Supporters of Amendment 4 said that “all terms” should include fines, fees and restitution. But it was immediately clear after it passed that payment of fines, fees and restitution would keep hundreds of thousands of felons from voting.

Lawmakers could have chosen to do nothing with the amendment, letting county election supervisors and the state sort out the definitions.

They chose instead to define it themselves, and chose the most restrictive path, requiring all monetary obligations be paid before a felon can vote.

Witnesses called to testify by the ACLU on Monday showed that requiring such payments is not so simple.

No agency in Florida tracks restitution, for example, meaning felons who stopped paying it can’t find out how much they owe. And while county clerks of court track payment of court fees and fines, they’ve had massive trouble with older cases.

Betty Riddle, 61, has drug-related felony convictions dating to 1975. She testified that the Sarasota County clerk hasn’t been able to dig up her old records to tell her how much, if anything, she owes on cases before 1990. The clerk in Hillsborough County couldn’t produce any records at all from her 1988 case, she said.

A supervisor at the Leon County clerk of court testified the office doesn’t even have records about court fees and fines for convictions before 1998.

Other felons said they had no easy way to figure out how much they owe, and that the sources of information were unreliable. Attorneys showed two examples where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s criminal database showed felons owed nothing, but county clerk websites showed felons owed thousands of dollars.

The testimony Monday didn’t even address two other major sources of confusion: how to confirm whether someone owes money for federal convictions or convictions in other states.

The result of the Legislature’s law, attorneys illustrated, is that felons are scared of registering to vote, for fear that some have no way of knowing whether they owe money on some long-lost case. It’s a third-degree felony to submit false information on a voter registration form.

Clifford Tyson, who was convicted of a felony in 1978, registered to vote when Amendment 4 took effect, on Jan. 8, months before the Legislature passed its bill.

He’s voted this year, but has since learned that he owes up to $1,800 in court fees in Hillsborough County.

He’s still a registered voter, since he hasn’t been removed from the voter rolls. He said he’s worried he could be charged with a crime if he chooses to vote in an upcoming election.

“I don’t want to break the law,” Tyson said. “Can I vote? Can I not vote? It’s unclear.”