Florida Politics

DeSantis joins ACLU in asking whether Florida’s ex-felon voting law is constitutional

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in June restricting the restoration of voting rights for some ex-felons. Now he’s asking for the state Supreme Court’s advice on that law.

DeSantis sent a letter to the Florida Supreme Court Friday seeking an advisory opinion on whether recently enacted SB 7066, which requires convicted felons to pay off their legal fees, restitution and fines before they get back their voting rights, subverts Amendment 4, the voter-approved law that restored ex-felons’ voting rights.

The letter comes one week after the ACLU and other groups filed a motion for a preliminary injunction blocking the bill, which went into effect July 1, until a court settles the question of whether SB 7066 is legal.

The ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice filed suit in federal court immediately after DeSantis signed the bill, claiming that SB 7066 is unconstitutional, and may lead to racial discrimination against some Florida voters. The suit was filed on behalf of a group of Florida ex-felons with outstanding fees they are unable to pay before the next election. Because the suit was filed in federal court, it won’t be heard by the state Supreme Court.

The ACLU accuses legislators of “devoting themselves to finding ways to undermine and attack Amendment 4,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. He and other critics call the payment requirement a form of poll tax.

But DeSantis’s office maintains the governor is committed to “faithfully implement[ing]” Amendment 4. The question DeSantis has for the Supreme Court is whether the amendment’s stipulation that voting rights are restored upon “completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation” includes fines, fees and restitution.

“I will not infringe on the proper restoration of an individual’s right to vote under the Florida Constitution,” DeSantis wrote in the letter.

If “terms of sentence” does include financial obligations, the two laws can run parallel. If it doesn’t, SB 7066 may have a problem.

A Supreme Court representative declined to comment on the question Friday.

The plaintiffs’ request for an injunction cited a University of Florida study released the same day that examined data from 48 counties. The study found that less than 20 percent of individuals with felony convictions who would be eligible to vote under Amendment 4 would reach the polls under the new bill.

The study also found that white ex-felons were twice as likely as their black counterparts to have paid all of their fees.

More than 2,000 people with felony convictions have registered to vote since Amendment 4 passed, according to a study by the Brennan Center. Among them, the average income was $15,000 less than the average Florida voter, the study found.

In Miami-Dade County, the criminal justice system has already found a legal way around the law. Certain ex-felons can opt to apply to have fees waived through a “rocket docket” that allows some fines to be converted to community service hours or stipulate that fines not restrict voting rights. Although not everyone is eligible — no one who owes restitution required as part of their sentence can be considered, for example — an estimated 150,000 former felons in Miami-Dade will be able to apply.