Florida House Approves Requiring People To Repay Criminal Fines, Fees Before They Can Vote

Critics say the legislation amounts to a poll tax and violates a constitutional amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved in November to allow people with felonies to vote.

The Florida House approved a controversial measure Wednesday requiring people with felony convictions to pay all financial requirements of their sentence before they can vote again.

The legislation comes after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November to repeal the state’s lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions. Now, people with felonies can vote once they have completed their sentence, including probation and parole. The constitutional amendment exempts people convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses from having their voting rights restored. Its passage was heralded as an enormous step forward for Florida and could affect up to 1.4 million people.

The groups that backed the amendment strongly opposed the measure the Florida House approved 71-45 along party lines Wednesday. Many people in the criminal justice system accumulate huge fines and fees, and requiring people to pay those sums before they can vote will effectively continue to disenfranchise people with felony convictions.

The state House bill would require people to repay any restitution, in addition to fines and fees ordered by a judge ― even if those obligations are converted to a civil lien. The bill does not require payment of fines and fees not imposed as part of a judge’s sentence in order to vote.

Supporters of November’s amendment that repealed felony voting prohibitions say it is acceptable to require people to pay restitution ordered by a judge or fines and fees that are part of a sentence. But they say the amendment does not allow the state to require fines and fees on top of that before they can vote. They also say that people whose legal financial obligations are converted to liens because they can’t pay them should be able to vote.

“Today’s partisan vote in the House represented a failure to live up to the bipartisan commitment Florida voters showed with the passage of Amendment 4,” Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the main group that pushed for passage of the constitutional amendment, said in a statement.

Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, opposed the measure passed in the Florida House Wednesday.
Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, opposed the measure passed in the Florida House Wednesday.
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Kara Gross, the legislative director of the ACLU of Florida, which strongly opposed the measure, said it was obvious the bill was contrary to what voters intended with the constitutional amendment.

“Disturbingly, this legislation will cause defacto lifetime disenfranchisement for large swaths of formerly incarcerated individuals who have completed their sentences — precisely the opposite of the entire purpose of Amendment 4,” Gross said in a statement. “This bill merely replaces one unjust system for another.”

Florida Rep. James Grant (R), who introduced the bill, strongly rejected accusations that he and fellow Republicans are trying to limit who can vote. He argued that those who supported November’s amendment suggested that requiring repayment of fines and fees would be acceptable when they asked the Supreme Court to approve the proposal for the ballot.

Grant said on the House floor Wednesday that people who committed felonies disenfranchised themselves.

“This bill does not disenfranchise anyone,” he said.

The Florida Senate is still considering its own version of the legislation. The Senate version requires people with felonies to repay all restitution before they can vote again. But unlike the House version, the Senate bill would allow people to vote if fines and fees are converted to a civil lien. Lawmakers are expected to eventually negotiate a final version of the bill, according to Florida Politics.

While Volz still has concerns with the Senate bill, he said it was closer to something advocates could support.

“We believe the Senate bill better reflects the spirit of Amendment 4 and hope that Republicans and Democrats can come together to produce a bipartisan bill that aligns with the will of Florida’s voters,” he said.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, and other critics, said the measure passed in the House amounted to a “poll tax.” Although the 24th Amendment does prohibit poll taxes, nine states directly require people with felony convictions to repay financial obligations before they can vote again, according to a 2016 report. The 14th Amendment gives states the right to disenfranchise people “for participation in rebellion, or other crime.”

In March, Grant rejected comparisons to a poll tax.

“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” he said during a hearing.

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