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.