TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Friday evening a controversial bill limiting how many felons will be able to vote, undercutting much of the promise of last year’s historic Amendment 4.
DeSantis announced the signing in a news release after the close of business before a weekend — one day short of his deadline to sign it.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups quickly filed a lawsuit to block the new law, arguing on behalf of several felons who registered to vote after the amendment passed, but are now ineligible under the legislation.
“It is not constitutional, it is not legal, and it is not right to deny people the right to vote because you can’t pay,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “What this bill does is reestablish a poll tax.”
The bill passed last month by Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature requires all felons to pay back their financial obligations before being eligible to vote.
Those obligations are expected to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of felons who can’t immediately afford to pay off their court fees, fines and restitution to victims.
Florida Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, blasted DeSantis’ decision to sign it.
“The vast majority of Floridians who supported Amendment 4 never intended to pass a reincarnated poll tax," Gibson said in a statement.
The bill was a blow to supporters of last year’s Amendment 4, which was supposed to wipe out one of the most racist and enduring policies of Florida’s Jim Crow era. Nearly two-thirds of voters last year approved the historic amendment.
The 150-year-old law preventing felons from voting was created in the wake of the Civil War, and it was meant to keep black people off the voter rolls.
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It worked. By 2016, more than one in five black Floridians were ineligible to vote because they were felons.
And the process for getting the right to vote back was arduous, requiring, under Gov. Rick Scott, felons to drive to Tallahassee and plead their case before the governor and Cabinet.
The amendment voters passed allowed felons not convicted of murder and sexual assault to automatically be eligible to vote if they completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”
Supporters of the amendment argued that the language was simple enough, and that the Legislature didn’t need to clarify it further.
But county elections supervisors asked lawmakers for guidance interpreting the amendment.
For supporters of Amendment 4, the language meant that felons who left prison and completed parole and probation could automatically vote.
That would also have been the simplest way to carry it out, too, since the Florida Department of Corrections tracks felons who are still under supervision.
But Republican lawmakers took a more restrictive approach. They argued that “all terms of sentence” included the various court fines, fees and restitution to victims that felons often have to pay, and that felons would have to repay all of those debts before being able to vote.
While some other states have similar policies, it means that some felons will have to wait years to vote, if they can ever vote at all.
One woman told lawmakers during the Legislative session that she owes $59 million in restitution, which she’ll never be able to repay.
One of those people is a plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit.
Kris Wrench, 42, said he’s been sober for the last seven years, since he got out of prison on charges related to his drug addiction.
The Gainesville native said he now owns a home, has a job painting homes, volunteers in local prisons and has a baby on the way. He was looking forward to being able to vote again.
“I was so pleased and so elated to know that I was finally going to get my voting rights back,” Wrench said. “And now it seems it’s going to be taken from me again, and it’s heartbreaking.”
Wrench said he registered to vote in Alachua County. But after hearing of the Legislature’s plans to require court fines be repaid, he contacted the Alachua courts and was surprised to learn he owes about $3,000 in court fees.
He can’t yet pay it, and he said it shouldn’t keep him from voting.
“I would like my voice to be heard. I’ve paid my dues,” Wrench said. “I’ve paid with my life, my freedom.”
The Republicans’ approach to restoring the right to vote for felons is also confusing and expensive. Because no state or local agency tracks restitution, lawmakers estimated it would cost “millions” to carry out.
The Legislature assigned another $750,000 to the Commission on Offender Review in next year’s budget to process additional applications.
The bill DeSantis approved does provide a path for some felons to have their fines, fees and restitution waived. If victims approve it, felons can petition a judge to either waive their restitution or have it converted into community service hours.
But how felons would petition a judge was never laid out in the bill, and it’s unclear whether felons would have to hire a lawyer, for example, to petition a judge.
Amendment 4 only addressed felons’ right to vote, and not the other rights that felons lose when they’re convicted.
But in a Friday letter to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee on Friday, DeSantis said he was considering allowing non-violent felons the right to also hold public office and serve on juries.
“I am considering whether to seek restoration of all civil rights to some of those whose rights were restored by Amendment 4,” DeSantis wrote in a letter to Florida’s Secretary of State Laurel Lee. “However, I would only consider restoring rights to those convicted of non-violent offenses.”
It goes into effect Monday.