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Analysis

New Florida Law Threatens Voting Rights Restoration

The bill discriminates by wealth and race, and burdens returning citizens with navigating a flawed fees and fines system.

July 16, 2019

Flor­idi­ans voted over­whelm­ingly last fall in favor of the Voting Restor­a­tion Amend­ment, also known as Amend­ment 4, a ballot meas­ure that restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million resid­ents with a past felony convic­tion who have completed their sentences. The amend­ment, which passed with a super­ma­jor­ity of nearly 65 percent, marked the single largest expan­sion of voting rights in the United States since 1971, when the 26th Amend­ment lowered the national voting age to 18.

But in a move that under­mines the will of Flor­ida voters, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into law SB7066, a bill that will weaken Amend­ment 4 by deny­ing voting rights to return­ing citizens until they settle any court debts connec­ted to their convic­tions. In other words, even after complet­ing their sentences, people with felony convic­tions are ineligible to vote if they have any outstand­ing court fees, fines, resti­tu­tion, and costs. Hours after the bill was signed, voting rights groups includ­ing the Bren­nan Center respon­ded by filing a federal lawsuit that chal­lenges the new law, arguing that it punishes return­ing citizens based on their wealth.

Flor­id­a’s new voting law discrim­in­ates by wealth and race

Crit­ics of SB7066 are call­ing it a modern “poll tax” because it makes the right to vote contin­gent on a person’s wealth, essen­tially forcing people to pay for access to the polls. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the result­ing voter disen­fran­chise­ment will dispro­por­tion­ately impact low-income indi­vidu­als and people of color “due to long­stand­ing and well-docu­mented racial gaps in poverty and employ­ment.”

Flor­id­a’s new voting law also echoes the state’s long history of restrict­ing the Black vote, which is rooted in Jim Crow-era policies dating back to the 1860s. Prior to the passage of Amend­ment 4, Flor­ida was one of the last remain­ing states that barred people with felony convic­tions from regain­ing their voting rights after complet­ing their sentences. As a result, 10 percent of the state’s voting age popu­la­tion — and 21 percent of African Amer­ican adults — were disen­fran­chised as of 2016. And accord­ing to a recent analysis by the Bren­nan Center, Amend­ment 4 has already improved Black voter regis­tra­tion rates since it went into effect in Janu­ary 2019.

“Our research shows that the people who have registered to vote under Amend­ment 4 are dispro­por­tion­ately black and low-income.” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Bren­nan Center’s Voting Rights and Elec­tions Program. “There can be no mistak­ing the racial and class implic­a­tions of this regress­ive new legis­la­tion.”

Flor­id­a’s fees and fines system is almost impossible to navig­ate

Beyond its discrim­in­at­ory prob­lems, SB7066 also places a burden on return­ing citizens to figure out for them­selves whether or not they have any outstand­ing legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions asso­ci­ated with their previ­ous convic­tions.

However, Flor­ida does not have a unified system for record­ing data on outstand­ing legal costs within the state, or for access­ing data on federal or out-of-state finan­cial oblig­a­tions. In addi­tion, county data­bases are often incom­plete and inac­cur­ate. As a result, it is diffi­cult for return­ing citizens to know for certain whether or not they have any outstand­ing court debts, and thus, whether they are viol­at­ing the law by regis­ter­ing to vote.

“It’s not reas­on­able to expect, and perhaps even impossible, for people in Flor­ida to figure out whether they have fulfilled all of their legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions, thanks to the defi­ciency of data in the system,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, coun­sel in the Voting Rights and Elec­tions Program at the Bren­nan Center. “Under this new law, if return­ing citizens register to vote, they could be doing so without full know­ledge of the status of outstand­ing legal costs — poten­tially at the risk of being crim­in­ally prosec­uted.”

Ulti­mately, SB7066 is expec­ted to dramat­ic­ally limit the restor­a­tion of voting rights mandated by Amend­ment 4. Stud­ies have found that the vast major­ity of legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions remain unpaid due to the finan­cial status of the defend­ants. For example, nearly 80 percent of fees and fines in Flor­ida Circuit Crim­inal Courts in 2018 were unpaid.

Demo­cracy is on the line in Flor­ida

The right to vote is cent­ral to a healthy demo­cracy — some­thing that was affirmed by the nearly 5 million Flor­idi­ans who made history last fall when they suppor­ted Amend­ment 4. SB7066 not only thwarts the will of Flor­ida voters by weak­en­ing that amend­ment, it determ­ines the right to vote in a way that discrim­in­ates based on wealth and race, all while forcing them to navig­ate a prob­lem­atic court system for fees and fines.     

“Flor­ida legis­lat­ors are trying to do an end run around the unmis­tak­able message that Flor­ida voters delivered at the ballot box in Novem­ber,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, senior coun­sel in the Voting Rights and Elec­tions Program. "This legis­la­tion flies in the face of what Flor­idi­ans voted for and those politi­cians know it.”

(Image: Getty/Paul J. Richards)