Upcoming court actions could clarify Amendment 4 mess before November elections

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Florida is key to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

It’s the beginning of a presidential election year and the morass surrounding Amendment 4 is as muddy as ever. 

The implementation of Amendment 4 has been messy, controversial and inconsistent throughout the state. The best bet for clarity appears to lie in court decisions expected later this year. The Florida Supreme Court and a federal district court based in Tallahassee are both expected to weigh in this Spring. While it’s unlikely anything will get resolved before the March Presidential Preference Primaries, those decisions could significantly influence the general election in November. 

The stakes are high because recent elections in Florida have been razor thin and the Sunshine State is key to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. He won Florida by a one-point margin, bringing in 48.6% of the vote, compared to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 47.4%. It was a difference of just 112,911 votes.

At issue is a 2018 ballot initiative approved by 65 percent of voters that automatically restores voting rights to ex-felons who have served their sentences. Supporters expected it to restore voting rights to more than 1 million formerly incarcerated residents.

But state lawmakers curtailed its reach by requiring the former inmates to satisfy all financial obligations, including fees and fines and restitution, before regaining the right to vote. The law (SB 7066) does include a provision added by Rep. Jamie Grant, a Republican from Tampa, and Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, allowing indigent offenders to have fines waived or reduced.

Critics of the implementing bill tying rights to financial obligations argue it disenfranchises would-be voters by putting up financial barriers difficult to reach for people who already struggle to find a job after serving their sentences.

A trial is also set to begin in April in the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee. Civil rights groups along with voting rights groups filed a lawsuit, alleging the implementation bill is unconstitutional. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle ruled last October that it’s unconstitutional to bar felons from voting who are “genuinely” unable to pay their financial obligations. DeSantis’ administration has appealed that decision.

Critics of the Republican-led legislation approved last year call it a poll tax that violates the U.S. Constitution and creates a caste system where only those who can afford to can get their rights back. Supporters of the legislation said it was necessary for implementing the amendment and was to clarify intent of the ballot language. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis is waiting for an advisory opinion from the Florida State Supreme Court on whether when former inmates complete their sentences, that also includes all financial obligations. That decision is expected early this year. 

Many formerly incarcerated people registered to vote last January when Amendment 4 first went into effect. However, there’s no state agency that tracks restitution, which can make it hard for some felons to figure out if they have an outstanding balance. County clerks of court track court fees and fines, but they’ve had difficulty unearthing records from very old cases.

Local election supervisors are continuing to add former inmates who maintain they’re eligible to register to vote. DeSantis administration has readied a plan to remove felons from the voter rolls if they haven’t paid all their financial obligations. But his lawyers have told a federal judge he’s waiting on the state Supreme Court’s advisory opinion. 

Hinkle castigated DeSantis’ lawyers last month, accusing the administration of employing delay tactics to keep former inmates from voting in this year’s elections. The Governor’s office has taken the position that Hinkle’s ruling changes Amendment 4 in a way that  many Floridians might not have supported. They argue that if the appeals court affirms Hinkle’s ruling, it would render the amendment void. 

Meanwhile four counties, some of the largest and most Democratic-leaning in the state, have set up programs to help ex-inmates satisfy their debts so they can register to vote. The counties – Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward and Hillsborough – make up roughly about a third of the state’s total population. 

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is accepting online applications from ex-felons looking for help in those counties to get their voting rights restored.

In addition to the court cases, there are a few pieces of legislation on this issue lawmakers are set to consider this session. Brandes filed legislation (SB 1354) that aims to make changes made to the voter registration form under Amendment 4 less confusing. It simplifies the checkboxes a former inmate needs to complete regarding their prior felony conviction and eligibility to vote. 

State Rep. Al Jacquet, a Riviera Beach Democrat, filed a bill (HB 6007) that would define what it means to complete the term of a sentence to include restitution, but not court fines and fees.

Sarah Mueller

Sarah Mueller has extensive experience covering public policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010. She began her career covering local government in Texas, Georgia and Colorado. She returned to school in 2016 to earn a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Since then, she’s worked in public radio covering state politics in Illinois, Florida and Delaware. If you'd like to contact her, send an email to [email protected]


7 comments

  • Ian

    January 11, 2020 at 10:59 am

    So many things wrong with this article.

    From the article:
    At issue is a 2018 ballot initiative approved by 65 percent of voters that automatically restores voting rights to ex-felons who have served their sentences.

    Two problems with that passage. First, Amendment 4 says nothing about an “automatic” restoration of voting rights. The amendment clearly says voting rights get restored when a felon completes all terms of his or her sentence, assuming the felon has not been convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. So, restoration is conditional, not “automatic,” and it does not apply to all felons. Please get your facts straight.

    Secondly, please stop using the term “ex-felons.” A felon is someone who has been convicted of a felony. A4 pertains to felons, not ex-felons.

    From the article:
    Supporters expected it to restore voting rights to more than 1 million formerly incarcerated residents.

    Not according to A4’s sponsor. When the lawyer for A4’s sponsor argued for the language before the Florida Supreme Court in 2017, he said A4 would apply to about 700,000 felons. 700,000 is less than “more than 1 million.” And, we’re talking about felons who are not murderers or sex offenders, not “formerly incarcerated residents.”

    From the article:
    But state lawmakers curtailed its reach by requiring the former inmates to satisfy all financial obligations, including fees and fines and restitution, before regaining the right to vote.

    Several problems here. The law to implement A4 does not require felons to “satisfy all financial obligations” before regaining the right to vote. The law limits such obligations to those included in the court’s sentence for the felony committed. If the felon has other financial obligations owed to the court that aren’t in his or her felony sentence, those have no bearing on whether voting rights are restored.

    Secondly, state lawmakers did not curtail A4’s reach. A4 clearly specifies that all terms of sentence must be completed before voting rights are restored. By requiring a felon to complete all such terms included in the sentence, lawmakers merely applied A4 as written. Please learn the meaning of the word “all.”

    Lawmakers were actually more lenient on felons than A4 is, which is pointed out by the article itself, but the article does not point out that nuance.

    From the article:
    The law (SB 7066) does include a provision … allowing indigent offenders to have fines waived or reduced.

    This is where lawmakers were more lenient than A4 is. There’s nothing in A4 indicating that the terms of a felon’s sentence can be waived. A4 requires all terms of the sentence to be completed, without allowing any waivers. You could argue that SB 7066 actually violates A4 by allowing restoration of voting rights through waiver of those terms.

    By the way, that provision in SB 7066 does not apply only to “indigent offenders.” It applies to any felon, regardless of whether he or she is indigent.

    From the article:
    Critics of the implementing bill tying rights to financial obligations argue it disenfranchises would-be voters by putting up financial barriers difficult to reach for people who already struggle to find a job after serving their sentences.

    Nice job of parroting critics’ incorrect claims about the law. How were lawmakers supposed to interpret “all terms of sentence” to mean anything other than “all terms of sentence?” Are we now in a universe where “all” does not equal “all?” That requirement is in A4. Were lawmakers supposed to ignore it?

    And, why does the article fail to point out that, back in December 2018, the ACLU and others sent a letter to the Secretary of State indicating that A4’s use of “all terms of sentence” should be interpreted pretty much exactly the way lawmakers did in SB 7066, but, for some reason, the ACLU changed its mind a few months later. Isn’t that pertinent?

    From the article:
    Critics of the Republican-led legislation approved last year call it a poll tax that violates the U.S. Constitution and creates a caste system where only those who can afford to can get their rights back.

    Again, nice job of parroting critics, especially by quoting their faulty use of “poll tax.” Even Judge Hinkle wrote in his injunction order that the law is not a poll tax. So, it’s basically journalistic malpractice to continue quoting critics with that terminology without pointing out that they are wrong.

    From the article:
    Many formerly incarcerated people registered to vote last January when Amendment 4 first went into effect. However, there’s no state agency that tracks restitution, which can make it hard for some felons to figure out if they have an outstanding balance. County clerks of court track court fees and fines, but they’ve had difficulty unearthing records from very old cases.

    Why is it anyone’s responsibility to keep up with what felons owe, other than the felons themselves? When they were ordered to pay financial obligations as part of their sentence, those obligations were included IN THEIR SENTENCE. If they don’t know how much they’ve paid versus how much they still owe, whose fault is that? And, why did the Florida Supreme Court ignore this problem inherent in A4 when testing it for the single-subject requirement? Because of this problem, A4 clearly violates that requirement.

    From the article:
    Hinkle castigated DeSantis’ lawyers last month, accusing the administration of employing delay tactics to keep former inmates from voting in this year’s elections. The Governor’s office has taken the position that Hinkle’s ruling changes Amendment 4 in a way that many Floridians might not have supported. They argue that if the appeals court affirms Hinkle’s ruling, it would render the amendment void.

    The Governor’s office is right. The electorate voted for an amendment that allows non-murdering, non-sex-offender felons to regain their voting rights by completing all terms of their sentences. That’s what A4 supporters told the Florida Supreme Court back in 2017 in a public hearing. News media were in the room. No one had any reason to believe that “all” meant anything other than all. In fact, Florida Politics ran a story on Oct 7, 2019, about a survey of Florida voters conducted by Sachs Media Group that clearly indicates voters believed “all” equals “all” when they voted on A4. Why does this article not mention that? The passage above gave a perfect seque into those survey results, but it was not followed, for some reason.

    This post is meant as constructive criticism. I hope it helps.

    • Bill In Palatka

      January 12, 2020 at 3:58 pm

      Let’s keep this short and simple. When voters cast their ballots in support of Amendment 4, they voted for an Amendment they believed had the intent to restore the voting rights of convicted felons who have not been convicted of a violent crime or a sexual offense, and who have not had any recent felony convictions.

      Its highly unlikely that very many voters assumed any exchange of money was tied to these requirements.

      The average Florida voter assumes the completion of a sentence to be something quite simple: If one has been sentenced to jail time, then completion is expected to mean the sentence is complete when one walks out of the front door of the jail and or prison. Likewise, if one has been sentenced to probation, then once that probation has been completed, then that sentence is over.

      This isn’t rocket science.

      However, the “implementation” the GOP undertook in Tallahassee went even further than any prior Florida Law, which has never required the paying of any fines in order to vote. That’s a fact.

      There is no argument available to excuse the nonsense coming from opponents of Amendment 4, nor the confusion they have intentionally sowed over a year after voters made their voices heard.

      Voters knew what they were voting for. They wanted folks to be able to have a second chance without any additional burdens being placed on them.

      Its an absolute disgrace what Republicans have done to this Amendment.

      • Ian

        January 18, 2020 at 11:28 pm

        Bill, there are so many things wrong with your post.

        Amendment 4 said nothing about “felons who have not been convicted of a violent crime.” Only murderers and felony sex offenders are left out. Every other felon convicted of a violent crime can get voting rights restored under A4. Felons convicted of armed robbery, assault and battery (including such felonies relating to domestic violence), manslaughter, attempted murder, and kidnapping might all be able to vote, with no consideration as to whether they are rehabilitated.

        So, if you try to murder someone but fail, you can get your voting rights restored under A4. But, if you succeed in murdering someone, A4 has no love for you. Makes sense, right? /sarc

        A4 also says nothing about whether such a felony was committed recently. What led to that erroneous portion of your post is a complete mystery.

        Your assumptions about what Florida voters were thinking are way off the mark, according to polling conducted by the Sachs Media Group. That research was featured in an article right here at FlaPol, back in October. Find the link below. After you read the article, you might see the light about what voters expected when voting for A4:

        flapolstaging.wpengine.com/archives/307532-karen-cyphers-what-do-florida-voters-think-it-means-for-a-felon-to-complete-all-terms-of-a-sentence

        I’d like to parse all the other errors in your post, but there’s no way to do that while keeping things short and simple.

        • Bill In Palatka

          January 20, 2020 at 8:37 am

          Ian, unfortunately I’m just getting around to responding to your post. That said, let’s get right into this discussion.

          Let’s be consistent here: Most states do not evaluate anyone’s rehabilitative status as a prerequisite to vote, and there is no such requirement in the Constitution.

          Coincidentally, most States only require the completion of a prison sentence in order to regain the vote, which is appropriate. In simpler terms: Do your time, get your vote back. That’s fair and reasonable and removes the layers of bureaucracy and endless debate that now permeates an issue that is only confusing because Republicans have undermined the Amendment’s intentions.

          When the system gets into litmus tests relative to which crime qualifies for reinstatement and which does not, then inconsistency takes hold, and folks get left out. REGARDLESS of the crime one has committed, and subsequently completed a legal prison term for, then his or her voting rights should be reinstated. That’s keeping it simple, fair, and balanced because that, whether you approve or not, is the way voting restoration works in most of America, and it has been that way for a very long time.

          Unhappy about it? Then change the federal Constitution, or the laws of more than three dozen states–in both blue AND red territories.

          A poll taken subsequent to a political action is useless. Most U.S. voters, if polled now, would likely say they would have voted against Trump if they knew then what they know now. However, that really isn’t the point, is it? The point is, voters rely on immediately available information to make their decisions. The average voter was familiar with what Amendment 4 did and did not do because the Amendment’s backers did an exceptional job of informing the public about its impact. Few folks who were paying attention did not understand the affect of the Amendment’s potential approval–and the Amendment passed with more than 64% support.

          It was only AFTER Republicans intervened did the Amendment become confusing to voters.

          Your comment about when a felony was committed was oddly irrelevant because I didn’t reference that in my post. Yo’re reading things that aren’t even there! So please be sure to read before you protest in the future.

          Thanks.

  • Amanda G.

    January 14, 2020 at 1:06 am

    When I voted yes for Amendment 4 I was under the impression that the vote would be automatically restored to all ex cons except rapists and murderers. Nothing I read on the ballot said anything about first paying fines or fees. I think the 35% who voted NO for Amendment 4 are sore losers and just won’t accept the fact that the majority of Floridians voted YES. Get over it losers.

    • Ian

      January 18, 2020 at 5:48 pm

      Amanda, if you felt that way when you voted, it must have been because you didn’t read the amendment and think about what the words mean. If you had read the amendment or the summary, surely you noticed the part indicating that “all terms of sentence” must be completed in order for voting rights to be restored. Payment of fines, fees, and restitution are included in a felon’s sentence quite often. Did you somehow think that “all” does not equal “all?”

      Or, maybe you didn’t read the amendment because you simply relied on the ACLU, et al., when they said you should vote yes.

      Those are two possible reasons why you could have voted yes without realizing what the amendment contained. It’s hard to believe you don’t understand what the word “all” means.

      • Bill In Palatka

        January 20, 2020 at 8:58 am

        There you go again, offering an intentionally misleading post, and one that degrades the intellect and viewpoints of others that don’t correlate to yours.

        For reference’ sake, yes, the Republican-packed state Supreme Court recently and predictably determined the meaning of “all” to include fines and fees, adding an element to voter eligibility that didn’t even exist BEFORE the passage of Amendment 4.

        That had to be a delight for Desantis–and an expected one, considering the governor appears to have been meticulously studious when he stacked the Court with like-minded individuals who also opposed the Amendment.

        That said, again, I believe most voters–including the small number questioned in the poll you referenced–would have supported Amendment 4 had they been informed that failing to repay fees and fines that are often inflated, exorbitant, and of which a lion’s share often ends up in the hands of third party collection agencies, would bar a felon from registering to vote, AND that such a requirement never existed in Florida law prior to the Amendment’s passage.

        Voters may not always understand legalese, but they certainly know when politics for political expedience clouds fairness.

Comments are closed.


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