Florida Legislature approves Amendment 4 bill that creates hurdles for voting felons

Democratic lawmakers begged Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the bill.
Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, right, listens to Amendment 4 debate in the Florida House on Friday. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, right, listens to Amendment 4 debate in the Florida House on Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 3, 2019|Updated May 4, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature on Friday approved a narrow interpretation of Amendment 4 in a bill that will likely continue the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of felons from voting, undermining the purpose of Florida’s historic ballot measure.

The result of a deal between Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate, the bill erects hurdles for felons who want to register to vote while outlining a restoration process that will likely differ throughout the state, raising legal concerns.

As the bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the chief architect of Amendment 4 said he plans on seeking a veto.

“What we’ve seen over the last few days reflects the reason why citizens decided to take on the initiative and take politics out of it,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “We’re hoping that the governor can say, ‘Hey House, hey Senate. Give this another shot. This is not good enough.’”

Meade estimated that of the 1.4 million felons in Florida who were eligible to vote, hundreds of thousands of them would be blocked from voting if DeSantis signed the bill.

Crafted in the final days of the legislative session, the bill requires felons to pay off all fines, fees and restitution before registering to vote.

But it allows felons to petition a judge to waive those fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours. If the felon owes restitution to a victim, the victim must approve allowing a judge to waive the money or having it converted to community service hours.

It does not allow felons to vote while they pay down their obligations each month — as most states do.

Amendment 4 was approved by 65 percent of voters last year. Its intent was to overturn a 150-year-old racist law that was successful at keeping black people from voting. The language said felons could vote as long as they’ve completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”

Its backers didn’t want the Legislature’s involvement, but Republican lawmakers intervened anyway, urged along in part by elections supervisors who said they wanted some guidance from Tallahassee.

Lawmakers pointed to testimony by a lawyer for Amendment 4 before the Supreme Court and information on the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s website that states that “all terms of sentence” includes all court fees, fines and restitution.

What the bill outlines is a much more complicated — and expensive — system for felons who want to vote. Its an undefined system, as well, which could be wildly different depending on where the felon was convicted.

Requiring that felons pay restitution, which goes to victims, would be a boondoggle. Some felons don’t know whom they have to repay, either because the victim died, or the business that was victimized closed or was absorbed by another company.

And restitution is one of the few aspects of a criminal case that isn’t tracked. Because no one tracks it, Florida will likely spend millions trying to create such a system so officials can verify if a felon has repaid restitution.

Lawmakers issued another $750,000 to the Commission on Offender Review in next year’s budget to process the potential surge in applications.

And requiring felons to petition a judge for financial relief is complicated, and potentially a burden on the already-stressed court system, one former judge said.

Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, said he imagines each circuit court would create a form felons can fill out to streamline the process. But would felons need to hire lawyers to navigate the courts? While Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he does not believe so, Gordon Weekes, the chief assistant public defender in Broward County, said felons almost certainly would.

“You could do it yourself, but navigating the courts pro se is like jousting with a windmill,” Weekes said.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, some fees cannot by law be converted into community service.

Meanwhile, the rate at which fines get converted to hours of service could vary. In Hillsborough County, the standard is $10 in fees or fines for one hour of community service. The court has never seen restitution converted, according to a court spokesman.

The bill also likely excludes two other classes of felons from voting.

The petition process does not apply to people convicted in federal court. So a woman who told lawmakers during a March hearing that she owes $59 million in restitution, for example, would almost certainly never be able to vote.

And because the bill only applies to Florida’s circuit courts, felons who were convicted in another state have no path to being able to vote.

The bill does do one thing to help felons, however: the burden is on the government to prove a felon has unpaid obligations.

That would help felons who have cases that are decades old and are unable to get proof from the victim that they’ve paid back their restitution.

“This bill does not require an applicant to prove anything,” Grant said. “If we’re not able, as government, to document there is an outstanding term, then the tie goes to the applicant.”

But Democrats strongly objected. Former Democratic nominee for governor, Andrew Gillum, tweeted that the measure was “voter suppression.”

State Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, feared the bill puts too much power in the hands of judges around the state who could wield that power disproportionately. He compared it to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who in 2015 refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“I have a feeling we’re going to come back next year — or later this year — and we’re going to be de-glitching a lot of this,” Grieco said. “We haven’t created the right framework to get this right. I think this is far from a perfect product.”

Florida’s Jim Crow-era law kept more than one in five black Floridians from voting, and Florida’s Legislature refused to do anything about it.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist used his position to allow more than 100,000 felons to vote. But when Gov. Rick Scott took over in 2011, he reverted back to the previous system that required felons to travel to Tallahassee and make an appeal to the state clemency board, which included Scott.

Meade scorned lawmakers for only now deciding to take action.

“Our elected officials had over 20-plus years to deal with this issue, and they did not pick the ball up. They walked off the playing field,” Meade said. “And what we as citizens and returning citizens did was that, we picked that ball up, and we got it across the finish line. And after we got it across the finish line, here comes elected officials to now try to pick the ball back up.

“Today, they fumbled.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.