In December, state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, chairman of a key House committee on felon voting rights restoration, vowed to the Times that he wouldn’t be part of any attempt to obstruct or delay the constitutional amendment restoring those rights.
But now he’s in a harsh national spotlight over the issue and being accused of seeking to continue Jim Crow-era suppression of black voters, in which the felon voting ban historically originated. National news organizations have covered the subject and Grant said he’s being castigated on the Internet.
“They’re calling me ‘Jim Crow Jamie,’” he said ruefully.
Grant, chairman of the House criminal justice subcommittee, is sponsor of the House version of a bill to implement the amendment. The amendment passed with 64 percent of the vote in 2018, saying former felons can vote after finishing their sentences.
His bill would require those individuals to pay all their restitution, fines and court and investigative fees as well as finishing their sentences and probation before having voting rights restored. Advocates say that will prevent many from having their rights restored, disproportionately affecting black people, and violates the spirit of the amendment and voters’ intentions.
But Grant contends he’s actually in sympathy with the amendment — even though it’s considered likely to benefit Democrats politically — and says he’s only trying to implement the amendment the way it was sold to voters.
Grant says amendment advocates, in explaining the measure to the state Supreme Court before it went on the ballot, acknowledged it would require repaying fines, costs and restitution if they were part of the sentence.
He said even the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group pushing the amendment, said so on its “frequently asked questions” web page until recently, when the issue became controversial.
“My obligation here is to not inject my beliefs — only to implement to the best of my ability the ambiguous amendment that passed,” he said. “What I think is right or fair is irrelevant.”
Neil Volz, political director of the coalition, acknowledged the organization had talked about fines and costs in pushing the amendment.
“We weren’t as clear as we could have been and are willing to talk this out in a way that’s about people and not whether everyone is 100 percent right all the time,” he said. “This isn’t a political science exercise.”
Grant said his bill would require satisfying the financial obligations only if the judge made them part of the sentence, but Volz said he interprets the bill differently.