Florida Politics

DeSantis signs bill requiring felons to pay fines, fees, restitution before voting

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Friday evening a controversial bill limiting how many felons will be able to vote, undercutting much of the promise of last year’s historic Amendment 4.

DeSantis announced the signing in a news release after the close of business before a weekend — one day short of his deadline to sign it.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups quickly filed a lawsuit to block the bill from going into effect. They filed it on behalf of several felons who were able to register to vote, but were ruled ineligible under the Legislature’s bill.

“It is not constitutional, it is not legal, and it is not right to deny people the right to vote because you can’t pay,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “What this bill does is reestablish a poll tax.”

DeSantis, however, did not address the most controversial part of the Legislature’s bill.

The bill passed last month by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature was called a “poll tax” by critics because it requires all felons to pay back their financial obligations before being eligible to vote.

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Those obligations are expected to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of felons who can’t immediately afford to pay off their court fees, fines and restitution to victims.

The bill was a blow to supporters of last year’s Amendment 4, which was supposed to wipe out one of the most racist and enduring policies of Florida’s Jim Crow era. Nearly two-thirds of voters last year approved the historic amendment.

The 150-year-old law preventing felons from voting was created in the wake of the Civil War, and it was meant to keep black people off the voter rolls.

It worked. By 2016, more than one in five black Floridians were ineligible to vote because they were felons.

And the process for getting the right to vote back was arduous, requiring, under Gov. Rick Scott, felons to drive to Tallahassee and plead their case before the governor and Cabinet, which served as the clemency board.

The amendment voters passed allowed felons to automatically be eligible to vote if they completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”

Supporters of the amendment argued that the language was simple enough, and that the Legislature didn’t need to clarify it further.

But county elections supervisors asked lawmakers for guidance interpreting the amendment.

For supporters of Amendment 4, the language meant that felons who left prison and completed parole and probation could automatically vote.

That would also have been the simplest way to carry it out, too, because the Florida Department of Corrections tracks felons who are still under supervision.

But Republican lawmakers took a more restrictive approach. They argued that “all terms of sentence” included the various court fines, fees and restitution to victims that felons often have to pay, and that felons would have to repay all of those debts before being able to vote.

While some other states have similar policies, it means that some felons will have to wait years to vote, if they can ever vote at all.

One woman told lawmakers during the legislative session that she owes $59 million in restitution, which she’ll never be able to repay.

And the Republicans’ approach is confusing and expensive. Because no state or local agency tracks restitution, lawmakers estimated it would cost “millions” to carry out.

It goes into effect Monday.

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