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Analysis

Florida Lawmakers Attempt to Weaken Voter Rights Restoration

This undermines a historic vote by Floridians in November 2018 to restore the right to vote to more than 1.4 million residents with past felony convictions.

  • Makeda Yohannes
March 20, 2019

On Tues­day, Flor­ida lawmakers advanced a bill that could severely restrict one of the most impact­ful expan­sions of the right to vote in over four decades. The legis­la­tion, which passed out of the House Crim­inal Justice Subcom­mit­tee, is a slap in the face to the over­whelm­ing major­ity of Flor­ida voters, who voted just months ago to restore voting rights to people with past felony convic­tions. Now, lawmakers are attempt­ing to make the restor­a­tion of voting rights contin­gent on the full payment of all fees and court costs. This would heap finan­cial oblig­a­tions on people involved in Flor­id­a’s crim­inal justice system and essen­tially reserve the restor­a­tion of voting rights to Flor­idi­ans who have the finan­cial means to pay.

In Novem­ber 2018, Flor­ida voters approved Amend­ment 4, a consti­tu­tional amend­ment that auto­mat­ic­ally restored the right to vote to more than 1.4 million Flor­idi­ans who have completed their sentence, includ­ing parole or proba­tion. It was a shin­ing example of voters using direct demo­cracy to expand demo­cracy. But even though nearly 65 percent of Flor­ida voters approved the meas­ure, lawmakers have sugges­ted they might limit the amend­ment’s reach through legis­la­tion. This week’s bill would do just that.

In fact, this new bill would make Flor­id­a’s rule regard­ing repay­ment of finan­cial oblig­a­tions even more restrict­ive than it was before Amend­ment 4’s passage. While the clem­ency proced­ure under then-Governor Rick Scott was terribly restrict­ive and arbit­rary, it did not require the payment of all fees and costs as a condi­tion for restor­ing voting rights.

As a nation, we long ago shunned the prac­tice of making voting contin­gent on wealth. Unfor­tu­nately, the prac­tice contin­ues, as a hand­ful of states prohibit indi­vidu­als who owe court debt from voting. This prac­tice will be partic­u­larly harm­ful in Flor­ida. Since 1996, the Flor­ida legis­lature has added more than 20 new categor­ies of legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions for crim­inal defend­ants, while simul­tan­eously elim­in­at­ing exemp­tions for those who cannot pay. Flor­id­a’s crim­inal justice system purpose­fully levies excess­ive court costs and fees as a means to under­write the state’s crim­inal justice costs, trap­ping poor Flor­idi­ans in cycles of debt.

Finally, apart from being anti-demo­cratic, this policy will be diffi­cult to admin­is­ter. Flor­ida will have a very diffi­cult time determ­in­ing who has paid off every last penny, espe­cially when it comes to people who completed their proba­tion or parole decades ago. The State should not waste its resources on examin­ing decades-old court records in order to poten­tially deprive someone the right to vote.

It is crit­ical, as the bill moves to a vote before the full state House, that voters defend one of the most trans­form­at­ive civil rights victor­ies—which they approved them­selves—­from being gutted. Flor­ida lawmakers must protect the rights of all Flor­idi­ans to exer­cise the fran­chise, regard­less of their finan­cial means.

(Images: Joe Raedle/Getty)