Florida House Approves Bill That Limits Voting Rights For People Convicted Of Felonies

May 6, 2019
Originally published on May 6, 2019 6:55 pm
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Florida voters decisively chose last fall to restore the right to vote to nearly all people convicted of felonies. That's almost 1 1/2 million people in the state. Now, state lawmakers have passed a bill to limit that right. It would block people convicted of felonies from voting unless they had paid back all court-ordered fees, fines and restitution. The bill is now before the governor, as NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The amendment, approved by 65 percent of the voters in November, restored the right to vote for felons, except for those convicted of murder or a felony sex offense, quote, "after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation." In Florida's legislature, the debate is over what that phrase - all terms of their sentence - means. Here's Republican Senator Jeff Brandes.

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JEFF BRANDES: I think as it relates to all fines and fees, it was very clear that they intended that this amendment include all things within the four corners of the sentencing document.

ALLEN: Brandes was a sponsor of a bill passed last week that sets rules for restoring voting rights to felons. Proponents of the initiative say the legislation is unnecessary. The amendment approved by voters, they say, is self-implementing and shouldn't be subjected to interpretation by lawmakers. Although fines, fees and restitution aren't mentioned in the ballot language, in the past, some backers of the amendment said they are part of a felon's sentence.

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GERALDINE THOMPSON: It's wrong like poll taxes were wrong.

ALLEN: When it came up in Florida's House, Representative Geraldine Thompson was one of many Democrats who charged it was an attempt to keep minorities from voting. Under the old law, more than 20 percent of eligible African American adults in the state were unable to vote. Thompson says it's a familiar story.

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THOMPSON: And it continues Florida's pattern of disenfranchising a significant portion of the population. It's wrong.

ALLEN: In Florida's House, sponsor Jamie Grant, a Republican, took exception to comments suggesting that this was about denying people the right to vote. He and many other Republicans, including Governor Ron DeSantis, maintain legislation was always going to be needed to turn the amendment into policy. Passing the ballot initiative, Grant says, was just the beginning.

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JAMIE GRANT: So this isn't the end of a story about redemption and restoration and second chances. But we also need to remember that the rule of law matters.

ALLEN: The bill passed by the legislature allows felons to ask the courts to waive their outstanding fees, fines and restitution or convert them into community service hours. How that process would work, though, and how much of a burden it would place on the courts hasn't been determined.

What's also not clear is how many felons have outstanding fines, fees and pending restitution. It might include half of the state's 1.4 million felons. That's according to Desmond Meade, director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Meade helped put the measure, dubbed Amendment 4, on the ballot. He's disappointed with the bill, but says parts of it, for the first time, provide hope for returning felons.

DESMOND MEADE: There is a mechanism that's there that could help relieve some, if not all, of the financial burdens on returning citizens. And so we're hopeful about that.

ALLEN: Meade says, for now, he's focused on encouraging felons to register to vote. But he and other voting rights advocates are also considering a court challenge. Micah Kubic is director of ACLU Florida.

MICAH KUBIC: They really said that your ability to vote is dependent upon your ability to pay money, and that is both contrary to the text and the spirit of Amendment 4. But it's also just really hostile to the values that we share as Americans.

ALLEN: Governor DeSantis says he plans to sign the bill, but given all the questions raised, he believes a court challenge is likely. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.