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By Jane C. Timm
Florida legislators advanced a bill on Tuesday that is expected to limit the number of former felons who can vote, in part by requiring former felons to pay back all court fees and fines before they can register.
Critics say the measure hits lower-income Floridians hardest and is designed to defy the will of the voters, who passed a constitutional amendment last year restoring voting rights to some felons who have completed their sentences without any mention of fines and fees. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter that the measure was “a poll tax by any other name.”
“What the barriers proposed in this bill do is nearly guarantee that people will miss election after election …because they cannot afford to pay financial obligations,” said Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s an affront to the Florida voters.”
In November, 65 percent of Floridians voted to approve an amendment to the state’s constitution, Amendment 4, that restored voting rights to certain former felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Those who were convicted of “murder or sexual offenses” were not eligible for rights restoration.
The constitutional amendment, which took effect January 2019, said voting rights would be restored to eligible Floridians — an estimated 1.5 million. Many have registered to vote in the months since then. Still, there was confusion about implementation, such as what qualified as a “sexual offense.” The Republican-controlled legislature, at the encouragement of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, decided to write legislation on how the state would implement the change.
On Tuesday, a Republican-controlled committee passed a measure that would require felons to pay back all court fees and fines — even if they are slowly paying those costs back in a court-approved payment plan, for instance — before they can register to vote.
Ebenstein said the bill “subverts” the will of Florida voters, who she said couldn’t have considered the legislature’s method of implementing the amendment when voting.
“Keeping voters who can’t afford to pay their fees immediately, keeping them disenfranchised for additional years, decades, or for the rest of their life, is not what was contemplated by voters who passed this amendment,” she said.
The Republican chair of Florida’s state House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Rep. James “J.W.” Grant, denied suggestions from advocates the bill was politically motivated and rejected the idea that it amounted to a poll tax, according to The Associated Press. Grant did not return a request for comment from NBC News.
Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have come under fire in the months since the midterm elections for what critics have called attempts to alter or nullify election results where either Democrats or causes championed by progressives triumphed. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers sought to limit the powers of incoming Democratic governors. In Missouri, Republican lawmakers reportedly said they were considering revisions to voter-approved ethics measures.
In Florida, supporters of Amendment 4 feared having Republicans — some of whom opposed the restoration of felon voting rights — craft the legislation on how the new law would be implemented and argued that implementation legislation was not needed.
Ebenstein said the financial obligation element of the bill that advanced Tuesday affects two groups: low-income felons who can’t afford to pay back fees, and those who committed property crimes and were sentenced to pay large sums of restitution and put on payment plans.
Even if a court waives the repayment of fees for a former felon, the bill would require the victim or organization to whom the fees were owed must “consent” in order for that person to register, adding a particularly unusual barrier to the process, Ebenstein added.
“I’ve never see anything like that in my time practicing voting rights,” she said.
The measure also qualifies a slew of felonies with any kind of sexual component as a disqualifying “sexual offense.” That includes crimes like having an adult entertainment store too close to a school as well as certain prostitution crimes.
“What they’ve done is picked the broadest definition possible to exclude the maximum number of people from having their rights restored,” Ebenstein told NBC News.
Desmond Meade, a former felon himself who lead the initiative to get Amendment 4 on the ballot and approved in November, said he and his group, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, oppose the measure because it puts up barriers to former felons seeking to vote.
“We are hopeful that improvements can be made to this bill that secure bipartisan support before it moves to the next committee,” Meade said in a statement. “After all, Amendment 4 passed with broad support from people all over the state and from all walks of life. Any legislation proposed should neither limit the rights created by Amendment 4 nor infringe upon the will of Florida voters.”
Meade’s group said in the same releasethat under Florida’s previous clemency process for restoring voting rights to felons, individuals were not required to finish paying off those financial obligations to get those rights restored. This bill constitutes an added restriction to voting rights, the statement said.
Amendment 4 aimed to end Florida’s arduous clemency process, in which voting rights could be restored at the discretion of the Florida governor. Applicants had to wait five to seven years depending on their crime before applying, and hearing back from the board took additional time. Many ex-offenders then had to appear in person to personally plead their case to the governor and the other members of Executive Clemency Board in person.