Florida Politics

Is it a poll tax if felons have to pay court costs and fees to regain voting rights?

A Florida House committee approved a bill addressing the rollout of Amendment 4 despite the likelihood it would undermine the ballot measure’s intent by limiting the number of former felons who could have their voting rights restored.

Voting along party lines, Republicans advanced the bill, which would require felons to pay back all court fees and costs before being eligible to vote, even if those costs are not handed down by a judge as part of the person’s sentence.

That standard goes beyond the restoration system before Amendment 4 passed in November, which only required someone pay back restitution to a victim before applying to have their civil rights restored. After the bill passed the House’s criminal justice committee Tuesday, Democratic representatives blasted it.

“It’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” said Rep. Adam Hattersley, D-Riverview.

At issue was how broadly or narrowly to interpret the amendment, and whether the Legislature needs to do anything at all.

Advocates of Amendment 4 believe no bill is needed, and that lawmakers are just meddling. Already, felons are registering to vote — and voting in city elections — across the state.

But elections supervisors and others have said they want help interpreting the landmark amendment, which passed with 64 percent of the vote last year. It ostensibly allowed more than 1 million ex-felons to have their voting rights restored, except for those convicted of “murder” and “sexual offenses.”

Committee chair Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, said he took the ballot measure’s language explicitly at its word, and he pointed to testimony Amendment 4 lawyers gave to the Florida Supreme Court.

Nobody defined what “sexual offenses” meant, Grant said, so he included every felony sexual offense on the books, including prostitution and placing an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school.

“There is absolutely zero significance to the term ‘felony sex,’ ” Grant said. “Had the language said ‘sex offender,’ that would have meant something.”

And he said he cited Amendment 4’s own advocates, who told justices that completing someone’s sentence could include fees and court costs. To liken those costs to a poll tax is offensive, Grant said, referring to the practice in the Jim Crow South of charging African Americans a fee, often prohibitive, to cast ballots.

“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” Grant said. “All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following the testimony of what was presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence.”

Yet the House bill serves the same purpose as the voter suppression tactics of the past, said Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which advocated and helped draft Amendment 4.

“We’re opposed to restricting voting rights,” Volz said. “And this bill does that.”

Volz and others who supported Amendment 4 say the measure is “self-implementing” — meaning it needs no further clarification by lawmakers for it to go into effect.

But lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis say they believe they need to define who’s eligible and when they become eligible, and the House and Senate don’t appear to be in agreement so far. The Senate has yet to introduce a bill.

In addition to requiring the payment of court fees and fines and broadly defining sexual offenses, the House bill also would:

Require the Department of Corrections to notify each inmate of his or her obligations before being released.

Require the secretary of state to set up a process for determining which ex-felons are eligible to vote.

Judges will often require felons to pay restitution to victims as part of their sentence. Amendment 4 advocates don’t dispute that restitution is part of someone’s sentence.

Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which also helped draft Amendment 4, said Monday that the House bill is too restrictive.

“It will inevitably prevent individuals from voting based on the size of the person’s bank account,” Gross said. “Those who have the financial means will vote, and those who can’t, won’t.”

She disagreed with how the bill defines “felony sexual offenses.”

“Everybody who voted for this, all of the people, when they heard that, the understanding clearly was … rape, child molestation, serious sexual felony offenses,” she said.

The House bill doesn’t include an idea that’s been pushed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, however. He wants to exclude felons convicted of “attempted murder” from automatic exoneration.

After Tuesday’s vote, Volz conceded that “mistakes were made” before the Supreme Court. He said the party line vote doesn’t bode well.

“Today, we saw the beginning of the politicization of Amendment 4,” he said. “We think we can do better than that.”