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‘I paid my dues:’ Tampa voters blast Amendment 4 bill requiring fees and restitution

Former felons called on Gov. DeSantis to veto the bill, which he plans to sign into law.

TAMPA — Clifford Tyson walked into Tampa’s Supervisor of Elections office to register to vote. It was Jan. 8, the first day he could do so, thanks to Florida voters last year approving a measure to expand voting rights to felons like him.

Now preaching at Greater Mt. Zion AME in St. Petersburg, Tyson was convicted of armed robbery and other theft charges between the 1970s and 1990s.

Tyson, 62 and a Tampa resident, said registering to vote was so important that he had his four-year-old grandson accompany him.

“I cried that morning,” he said. He broke down again after he voted in Tampa’s mayor election this spring.

Tyson said his criminal history was nobody’s fault but his. “But,” he insisted, “I paid my dues to society.”

Now, a bill awaiting signature by Gov. Ron DeSantis, criticized heavily by voting rights advocates, will require felons to pay off court fines, fees and restitution — or have them waived by a judge — before registering to vote.

The bill troubles voters like Tyson who have had their rights restored by the approved measure — Amendment 4 — and have already voted.

In Tyson’s case, he said he was able to pay the $2,500 or so in resulting fines and restitution only because his family had the money to help when he got out of prison.

But he said expecting everyone to simply work their debt off isn’t so easy.

“I just put in an application this morning for a job and had to list every felony conviction I had from over 40 years ago,” he said. “So you can imagine somebody’s getting out now. They can’t get a job, how are they going to get restitution?”

He believes he still owes money for driving violations, since his license was suspended.

Tyson called the bill awaiting DeSantis’ signature “voter suppression” and worthy of a veto.

“They know what they’re doing,” Tyson said. “Gov. DeSantis, he should do the right thing.”

Clifford Tyson posed for a portrait on May 20, 2019 at his home in Tampa, Florida. Tyson is a pastor and an advocate who has worked with people in prison. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

DeSantis has said he intends to sign it into law.

To enforce the bill, lawmakers expect to the state to spend millions on new methods to centralize information on outstanding fees stemming from convictions, the vast majority of which are never paid.

As part of the bill, when someone is released from incarceration, or their probation is terminated, their release documents will detail outstanding money that they would need to pay before registering to vote.

Tyson was one of more than 130 Tampa voters who registered on the first day of Amendment 4.

“I think it’s crap,” said one, Wendy Pearce, 42, referencing the bill.

Pearce, a mother who said she was convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer and got off probation in 2016, was thrilled to register online in January.

“I was just like, ‘hell yeah,’ I can vote again!”

She remembered court fees totaling “around $1,200 or $1,400,” which she used her income tax return for. She wasn’t assigned restitution, she said.

For many Amendment 4 supporters, it was assumed that finishing probation was enough to qualify to register to vote.

Letrell Johnson, 48, said she campaigned door-to-door in “dangerous” neighborhoods to collect signatures for the ballot measure.

To her, voting had been important since she was a teenager.

“I knew it was something I had to do," she said.

In 2012, she finished monthly payments on about $5,000 in restitution and fees. She also used her income tax refund towards her last payment.

“I feel like if the case is closed, the case is closed,” said Johnson, who now works washing rental cars at the airport.

Terdell Newsome, a 41-year-old truck driver who was released from state prison in 2008, said the bill singles felons out.

“I believe that the people don’t want felons to vote. So that’s why they’re coming up with you having to pay these fines,” he said.

“The Democrats ain’t have a problem with it. It’s the Republicans that have a problem with it.”

Anthony Barcelo, 64, said he agreed with lots of what Republicans do, but called the bill “shameful.”

“It’s just an attempt by them to block us from voting for Democrats,” said Barecelo, who was charged with grand theft in 1992 and agreed to pre-trial intervention, records show. “Governor DeSantis should know better.”