1. Florida Politics
  2. /
  3. The Buzz

Florida’s Amendment 4 legislation is a mess, felons and county officials testify

A federal judge hearing a challenge to the Legislature’s Amendment 4 bill also questioned changes to the state’s voter registration form.
In this Oct. 22 photo, people gather around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Published Oct. 8

The Florida Legislature’s bill cracking down on Amendment 4 has created a mess, with felons uncertain whether they can vote, clerks of court unable to to confirm whether felons are eligible to vote and elections supervisors using voter registration forms that are different from those used by the Secretary of State.

That’s the conclusion after the first day of arguments in a federal hearing challenging a bill adopted by the Legislature this year curtailing Amendment 4, which was supposed to restore the right to vote to more than a million felons.

The bill required felons to pay back all court fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote, conditions that critics have called a “poll tax.”

Various groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging the bill. They’re asking asking U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to temporarily stop the bill until the case can be resolved. Closing arguments are expected in court in Tallahassee today, with a ruling expected in the coming days or weeks.

Hinkle gave little indication on Monday how’d he’d rule on the ACLU’s request.

But he expressed deep skepticism about one change lawmakers made: to the state’s voter registration form.

RELATED STORY: What now? Amendment 4, felon voting move to Florida courts

The change was one of several that lawmakers made this year to Amendment 4, the historic legislation that restored the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms of sentence.”

Before Amendment 4, the state’s voter registration form simply asked new voters that if they’re a felon, they affirm that they’ve had their right to vote restored. (The state’s clemency board could restore voting rights prior to Amendment 4.)

Lawmakers changed the form this year to require new voters to check one of three boxes:

(a) that they’ve never been convicted of a felony;

(b) if they have been convicted of a felony, to affirm they’ve had their right to vote restored by the state’s clemency board; or,

(c) if they have been convicted of a felony, to affirm they’ve had their right to vote restored by “s. 4 , Art. VI of the State Constitution.”

Hinkle noted that the language is confusing to the average person. He doubted whether any of the more two dozen lawyers in his courtroom knew what “s. 4 , Art. VI of the State Constitution" was before they were hired to work on the case. (It’s just a legal citation of Amendment 4.)

RELATED STORY: Florida’s Amendment 4 muddled by confusing voter forms

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told Hinkle that his office was still using the old form to register voters, even though the State Secretary of State is using the new form.

Earley agreed with Hinkle’s view on the new form.

“I think it’s very confusing, yes,” Earley said.

Hinkle then questioned whether the changes were an attempt by lawmakers to discourage people from registering to vote.

“If you were trying to discourage people from registering, would you choose language like this?” Hinkle asked.

Earley nodded and said, “Yes.”

RELATED STORY: Amendment 4: Did a Rick Scott loyalist just force a judge to recuse himself?

Hinkle’s comments capped a day of testimony from former felons and elections officials that exposed the confusion surrounding the Legislature’s Amendment 4 bill, which took effect on July 1.

Amendment 4 was supposed to reverse a 150-year-old law meant to keep black people from voting. It required nearly all felons complete “all terms of sentence including parole or probation" first, though.

Supporters of Amendment 4 said that “all terms” should include fines, fees and restitution. But it was immediately clear after it passed that payment of fines, fees and restitution would keep hundreds of thousands of felons from voting.

Lawmakers could have chosen to do nothing with the amendment, letting county elections supervisors and the state sort out the definitions.

They chose instead to define it themselves, and chose the most restrictive path, requiring all monetary obligations be paid before a felon can vote.

Witnesses called to testify by the ACLU on Monday showed that requiring such payments is not so simple.

No agency in Florida tracks restitution, for example, meaning felons who stopped paying it can’t find out how much they owe. And while county clerks of court track payment of court fees and fines, they’ve had massive trouble with older cases.

Betty Riddle, 61, has drug-related felony convictions dating to 1975. She testified that the Sarasota County clerk hasn’t been able to dig up her old records to tell her how much, if anything, she owes on cases before 1990. The clerk in Hillsborough County couldn’t produce any records at all from her 1988 case, she said.

RELATED STORY: Amendment 4 will likely cost ‘millions’ to carry out. Here’s why.

A supervisor at the Leon County clerk of court testified the office didn’t even have records about court fees and fines for convictions before 1998.

Other felons said they had no easy way to figure out how much they owe, and that the sources of information were unreliable. Attorneys showed two examples where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s criminal database showed felons owed nothing, but county clerk websites showed felons owed thousands of dollars.

The testimony Monday didn’t even address two other major sources of confusion: how to confirm whether someone owes money for federal convictions or convictions in other states.

The result of the Legislature’s law, attorneys illustrated, is that felons are scared of registering to vote, for fear that some have no way of knowing whether they owe money on some long-lost case.

It’s a third-degree felony to to submit false information on a voter registration form.

Clifford Tyson, who was convicted of a felony in 1978, registered to vote when Amendment 4 took effect, on Jan. 8, months before the Legislature passed its bill.

He’s voted this year, but has since learned that he owes up to $1,800 in court fees in Hillsborough County.

He’s still a registered voter, since he hasn’t been removed from the voter rolls. He said he’s worried he could be charged with a crime if he chooses to vote in an upcoming election.

“I don’t want to break the law," Tyson said. “Can I vote? Can I not vote? It’s unclear.”


  1. Senator Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, examines papers as he enter the Florida Capitol, Wednesday, May 1, 2019 during the last week of the sixty day legislative session. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The man once called “the Donald Trump of regional egg farmers" is in line to become leader of Florida’s Senate in 2020
  2. In this image from a telecast by The Florida Channel, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks to a Gainesville crowd that came to discuss revisions to the state's education standards this past week. “We’re going to end up with the world’s best standards,” Corcoran said. The Florida Channel
    The effort, ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis, aims to transform the way students learn in public schools. A “listening session” is set for Tampa’s Jefferson High.
  3. The annual assault on Florida’s public records law begins anew today in the Legislature.
    “It’s pretty alarming what they’re doing here,” said a former Florida long-term care ombudsman who now runs an advocacy group for residents.
  4. Protestors gather in Turlington Plaza to practice the chant "No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA" prior to the speech of Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle at the University of Florida on October 10, 2019.  CHRIS DAY  |  Chris Day
    The president’s son was joined by former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, his girlfriend, who serves as an adviser for Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.
  5. Republicans circle the wagons. Samantha J. Gross | Miami Herald
    Even this week’s revelations in Florida haven’t disrupted the state’s political dynamics. That means Republicans are firmly behind their leaders.
  6. Chelsea Tremblay, left, looks on while her husband Mayor Scott Tremblay is congratulated by Sherry Maklary after Pasco legislators table bill from state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, calling for election on dissolving Port Richey at the  public hearing held at Pasco-Hernando State College in New Port Richey on Friday. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Rep. Amber Mariano’s bill requiring a public referendum on the city’s future is tabled until a legislative audit is conducted.
  7. The Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller will waive some late charges for residents who have had their driver's license suspended as part of Operation Green Light. Courtesy Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller
    Florida drivers can lose their licenses for things unrelated to their safe driving record, such as unpaid court fines and traffic fees . Operation Green Light and similar programs are trying to help...
  8. The impeachment trial against President Andrew Johnson opens in the Senate Chambers in the U.S. Senate historical Society drawing.  Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, clashed with Congress over reconstruction policies after the Civil War and was impeached over a Tenure of Office dispute.  (AP Photo/U.S. Senate Historical Society) AP
    From Andrew Johnson in the 1860s to Richard Nixon in the 1970s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s, American history is our guide.
  9. Blackwater River Correctional Facility. [Florida Department of Corrections]
    The Department of Corrections has not tracked how many inmates have required treatment as a result of overdoses during the past three years.
  10. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks as CNN moderator Chris Cuomo listens during the Power of our Pride Town Hall Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. The LGBTQ-focused town hall featured nine 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ  |  AP
    Weird lines from Joe Biden and Chris Cuomo was the talk of the night, but stances on tax-exempt status and conversion therapy were discussed throughout Tuesday’s town hall.