Florida Lawmakers Move To Block People With Court Debts From Voting

A bill in the legislature makes it too difficult for people to become eligible to vote, according to voting rights advocates.

Voting advocates raised concern Monday that Florida lawmakers are trying to water down a constitutional amendment passed last year that allows people with felony convictions to vote once they complete their sentences.

The measure went into effect in January. Prior to that, Florida was one of four states in the country that permanently banned former felons from voting, a policy rooted in the Jim Crow South. Last November, Florida voters overwhelmingly rejected that practice and approved voting rights restoration. The reform is estimated to affect up to 1.4 million people and earned the state wide praise.

Advocates say the measure is “self executing,” but lawmakers say they need to pass legislation to implement it and clarify some ambiguities. Voters approved an amendment that specifically says people convicted of “murder” and “felony sexual offenses” will remain permanently barred from voting. A bill in the Florida House would exclude people convicted of first- and second-degree murder as well as a range of felony sexual offenses from voting. The House’s criminal justice subcommittee advanced the bill Tuesday morning.

The bill would also not let people with felonies vote until they repay “any cost of supervision as well as any financial obligations related to their conviction. Advocates who pushed for the amendment strongly oppose such a provision, saying that it conditions one’s ability to vote on how much money they have.

“This is exactly what we were worried about from the beginning — legislative attempts to undermine the will of the people.”

- Kirk Bailey, political director, ACLU of Florida

The state should only require people to repay fines and fees that were part of their original sentence before restoring their rights, Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said during a hearing earlier this year.

The bill in the House is an “affront” to the voters who approved the constitutional amendment, according to Kirk Bailey, the political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which supported the measure.

“This is exactly what we were worried about from the beginning — legislative attempts to undermine the will of the people who voted for second chances and to rid Florida of the last vestiges of its Jim Crow era past,” Bailey said in a statement. ”This bill will broaden the narrow exclusions for murder and sexual felony offense in the amendment, and broaden what was contemplated by completion of one’s sentence to include all sorts of court fees and supervision costs unrelated to one’s sentence.”

Requiring repayment of fines and fees could affect up to 540,000 people, according to a 2018 estimate by Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, and Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project.

Desmond Meade, the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the main group behind the bill, sent an email to supporters on Monday afternoon saying the constitutional amendment was “under attack.”

State Rep. James Grant (R), the chairman of Florida’s House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, did not immediately return HuffPost’s request for comment. He told the Orlando Sentinel that the constitutional amendment was unclear.

“When the Constitution says ‘felony sex offenses’ and that means nothing legally, the best I can do is propose a list of felonies that are sexual,” he said. “The reality is I’m going to do my best effort to maintain what I believe the rule of law now requires in a super-ambiguous constitutional amendment.”

Grant said during testimony Tuesday that advocates indicated requiring payment of fines and fees would be acceptable when they asked the Florida Supreme Court to approve the measure for the ballot.

This story has been updated to note that the House subcommittee advanced the bill.

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