TALLAHASSEE — No public hearing was held. Nobody announced it during a news conference.
But two GOP lawmakers confirmed to the Times/Herald this week that they won’t follow a federal judge’s recommendation last fall that they revisit how they implemented a 2018 ballot measure called Amendment 4 intended to let non-violent felons to register to vote.
That decision to not take action will essentially prevent thousands of felons from registering to vote in the 2020 election.
It counters U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who said last year that GOP legislators created an “administrative nightmare” with their legislation implementing Amendment 4 and that they were in a better position to fix it than he was.
The lawmakers, both from Tampa Bay, said they’re not likely to make any changes until a federal lawsuit against last year’s legislation is settled — which could be years away. Because it’s considered one of the most prominent voting rights cases in the country, both men said they expect the U.S. Supreme Court to be the final arbiter.
“This largely goes to the Supreme Court,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “We’re in a wait-and-see pattern.”
Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, said, “We’re in the second quarter of litigation,“ and the “likely destination is the Supreme Court.”
The inaction dashes the hopes of felons looking for relief so they can vote in this fall’s presidential election and leaves felons with federal and out-of-state convictions without any means to vote if they can’t immediately pay off any court fees, fines and restitution that they owe.
The architects behind the legislation, Grant and Brandes, had indicated they would satisfy Hinkle’s concerns. Immediately after Hinkle ruled in October, they said they would tweak their bill this session.
Even Gov. Ron DeSantis, who opposed Amendment 4 and urged lawmakers last year to take a hard-line stance on it, celebrated Hinkle’s ruling and said he’d consider paths for poor felons to vote.
"The Governor will consider options put forward on addressing a pathway for those who are indigent and unable to address their outstanding financial obligations,” his spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said in a statement then.
DeSantis has since appealed Hinkle’s order, and his lawyers have argued that felons must pay back all court fees, fines and restitution to victims before voting. The official who DeSantis appointed to oversee the state’s elections system, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, has provided little guidance to voting officials about how to handle the new law in the interim.
The legislation last year largely undercut the promise of Amendment 4, which reversed a Jim Crow-era law that prohibited felons from voting. Amendment 4 restored the right to all felons who completed “all terms of sentence.” With an estimated 1.4 million felons in Florida, it was considered America’s greatest expansion of voting rights in decades.
The Legislature defined “all terms” to include all court fees, fines or restitution handed down during a felon’s sentence. That was a definition that organizers of Amendment 4 had used, and the Florida Supreme Court recently agreed.
But it’s estimated that at least 80 percent of felons owe fines, fees or restitution handed down during their sentence. Many are under monthly payment plans, slowly chipping away at hundreds or thousands of dollars in obligations.
Other states, unlike Florida, allow felons to vote while they pay off their financial obligations.
More than a dozen felons represented by civil rights groups quickly sued after DeSantis signed the bill into law, arguing it was unconstitutional.
The lawsuit landed in Hinkle’s court. He ordered the state not to remove the 17 felons involved in the lawsuit from the voter rolls.
Hinkle also noted the “mess” that lawmakers created with the bill. Felons have no easy way to check whether they owe court fees or fines or restitution to victims.
Courts, which are supposed to collect the money, have struggled to tell felons whether they owe money in old cases. And no one in the state tracks restitution to victims.
Changes lawmakers made to the voter registration form made no sense, he said, and were perhaps made to discourage felons from registering.
“What we have now is an administrative nightmare,” Hinkle said.
Hinkle’s injunction said that felons can’t be stopped from voting just because they’re poor and suggested the Legislature come up with a way for felons to vote. DeSantis appealed the order, and a federal appellate court has yet to weigh in.
Nearly four months later, the only fix lawmakers appear prepared to make is to undo the changes they made to the voter form.
“The form was a well-intended thing that had unintended consequences and led to a bunch of confusion,” Grant said.
Lawmakers are unlikely to touch Hinkle’s larger point — that poor felons should be allowed to vote — until after the case is settled.
Brandes and Grant believe the case, set to go to trial in Hinkle’s courtroom in April, will be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Their decision is disappointing, said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel for voting rights at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, which is representing several of the felons who have sued the state.
Diaz said lawmakers did not have to wait for the courts to sort it out before acting. While the Florida Supreme Court set a strict definition for “all terms of sentence,” it did not define when those terms of sentence end, he said.
Lawmakers could still, for example, change the law to allow felons to vote when their obligations are converted to a civil lien. When a felon leaves prison or probation without paying off their fees and fines, courts will typically convert them to civil liens, payable to a debt collector in monthly installments.
Brandes last year pushed for this provision, but ultimately adopted Grant’s version of the bill, which explicitly states that someone‘s sentence isn’t complete when their debts are converted to a civil lien.
“We think they are well within their authority to define ‘completion’ and create some sort of pathway, some sort of procedure, for somebody who genuinely cannot afford to pay back their obligations,” Diaz said.
In the meantime, for felons who need relief from their court debts, the legislators point to a process they created last year that allows felons to appeal to a judge, who can convert their debts into community service hours or waive the amounts altogether.
Implementing that process has been scattershot, however, with prosecutors in some counties setting up “rocket dockets” to quickly clear felons.
And it provides no relief for two other groups of felons: those with convictions in federal court or convictions in other states. The Legislature’s waiver process only applies to convictions in state courts.
One of the felons who sued, for example, was convicted in Wisconsin, where he owes $110,000 in court costs and restitution. He’s eligible to vote there but not in Florida.