Leave ex-felons’ rights alone | Editorial

Ex-felons Lance Wissinger and Permon Thomas hug as they fill out their voter registration forms at the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office. Activist Neil Volz looks on.
Ex-felons Lance Wissinger and Permon Thomas hug as they fill out their voter registration forms at the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office. Activist Neil Volz looks on. Getty Images

We have said it before, several times, but recent events in Tallahassee are forcing us to repeat ourselves: Amendment 4, which automatically restores many ex-prisoners the right to vote upon satisfying the conditions of their sentences, is complete as is.

But Republican state legislators are intent on undermining Floridians’ will. Lawmakers are setting themselves up to subvert democracy in this state — again.

Legislators are chipping away at the rights voters granted ex-felons in November when they approved this constitutional amendment by almost 65 percent. They said Florida’s 1.5 million former prisoners who had paid their debt to society — and were not murderers or sex offenders — could automatically regain their right to vote. Simple as that.

Republican lawmakers want to make it complicated, to their benefit. Last week, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved a bill that would help keep in place the decades-long disenfranchisement that the constitutional amendment meant to correct.

In a straight party-line vote, the subcommittee approved a measure to “clarify” what voters approved. It would: Let’s be it clear: As written, Amendment 4 does not require clarification., it does not not require payment of court costs or fines before the ex-felons’ voting rights are restored, no doubt a scary proposition for Republicans.

<bullet>Require ex-felons pay all court fees and fines before being eligible. Sounds like a poll tax, to us.

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

<bullet>Define “felony sexual offenses” to include a wider array of crimes, including prostitution, clearly overreaching.

<bullet>Require Florida’s secretary of State to set up a process for determining which ex-felons are eligible to vote. We already have a process, the misbegotten Clemency Board. We suspect this proposal won’t improve things.

Worse, a version of the bill in the Florida Senate could now construe “murder” to include attempted murder and manslaughter.

Ex-felons, largely poor, African American or Hispanic, may not be able to meet all those requirements. And, of course, that’s the point. Republican administrations have for too long worked to suppress the vote of young people, senior citizens, African Americans and many Hispanics, keeping those likely to vote Democratic from the polls. And they’ve done by any means necessary, from cutting the number and the hours of early voting sites in minority neighborhoods to clinging to the state’s Clemency Board, an arbritary and unfair process for restoring ex-felons’ voting rights.

Except for a few enlightened periods of loosened restrictions, Florida’s been at it for more than 150 years. In 1868, Congress forced Florida to rewrite its constitution to allow every man the right to vote. But adding thousands of newly eligible black residents to the rolls would have made whites a voting minority. Lawmakers in Tallahassee found a solution: a lifetime voting ban on anyone with a felony conviction. Not until last year did voters erase this racist law.

The clearing of the throat on Amendment 4 began with new Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Soon after he was sworn in, he said Amendment 4 would require the Legislature to pass implementing legislation before it could take effect.

Amendment 4 advocates said nonsense — and so do we. Desmond Meade, head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and a leader in the fight for ex-felons, said: “We think legislators supporting these measures should stop their meddling, or those same voters are likely to remember them.”

We’ll say it again: Floridians knew what they were voting for when they approved Amendment 4. Lawmakers should not subvert their intent.