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Florida leads nation in voter disenfranchisement, criminal justice group says

Nearly 900,000 Floridians with felony convictions are unable to vote despite the passage of Amendment 4.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida continues to lead the nation in the number of people unable to vote next month because of a felony conviction, despite the passage of a landmark 2018 constitutional amendment meant to restore their access to the ballot box, according to a study released by a national nonprofit on Wednesday.

Nearly 900,000 Floridians with felony convictions are unable to vote because of a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, which required them to pay all court fees fines or restitution before voting, according to the study released by the Sentencing Project is a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform

In all, more than 1.1 million Floridians are unable to vote because they have felony convictions or owe court debts, making Florida the “nation’s disenfranchisement leader," the report states. About 15 percent of the state’s Black voting-age population is disenfranchised because of a felony, the report estimates, compared to about 6 percent for the state’s non-Black population.

Florida is home to about 20 percent of the estimated 5.2 million Americans who can’t vote because of a felony conviction, the study states.

“No democracy can say it’s legitimate, nor will it survive, when one group of people is disproportionately subjected to the coercive power of the police, prosecution, the courts and prisons — and is consequently stripped of voting rights,” said Sakira Cook, a program director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an advocacy group, after a news conference about the report.

Related: Florida ruled felons must pay to vote. Now, it doesn’t know how many can.

The last time the Sentencing Project issued a report on felony disenfranchisement, in 2016, the group estimated 6.1 million Americans were prevented from voting. Floridians were by far the largest group, with more than 1.4 million disenfranchised.

Most of those felons, except those who committed violent or sex crimes, were believed to have had their right to vote restored when Floridians approved Amendment 4 in 2018. The amendment restored the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms” of their sentence, and it ended a 150-year-old law intended to keep Black Floridians from voting.

Florida was the last large state to keep felons off the rolls, and the passage of Amendment 4 was considered America’s greatest expansion of civil rights in decades.

In the following months, however, Republican lawmakers drew a hard line on Amendment 4, defining “all terms” to include court fees, fines and restitution to victims. An estimated 80 percent of felons owe court fees or fines in Florida, making the Legislature’s action perhaps the biggest single instance of voter disenfranchisement in the country.

A spokesman for DeSantis did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the report. DeSantis, who was against Amendment 4, has said the bill he signed carried out the intent of Amendment 4′s creators, some of whom in earlier discussions about the ballot measure had said court costs were part of someone’s sentence. Former Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, used those statements to justify the strict interpretation of “all terms” of sentence."We know what the voters were told, and that’s exactly what the bill is," he said during a committee hearing about the bill DeSantis eventually signed.

An analysis by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald and ProPublica found that at least 31,400 people with felony convictions have registered to vote since Amendment 4 took effect, well below what supporters of the amendment had hoped. About half of them were Black.

Related: What happened to Florida’s Amendment 4? Five takeaways from our investigation

To complicate matters, nearly 80 percent of felons who did register may be ineligible to vote because they owe fees, fines or restitution. Despite being ineligible to vote, the state has not removed any from the rolls, creating the possibility that thousands of ineligible voters could cast votes in the Nov. 3 election.

Voting while knowing you’re ineligible is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Voting while knowing you’re ineligible is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. But because many felons are unaware they owe anything, it’s unclear how they could be prosecuted.

Chris Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociology professor who co-wrote both the 2016 and 2020 Sentencing Project reports, said he estimated that 75 percent of Florida felons not in prison owe some sort of court debts. Other estimates have placed the number at about 80 percent. The state does not know how many people owe court fees or fines.

Uggen noted that 75 percent of the estimated 5.2 million Americans are disenfranchised despite no longer being in prison.

“This is really unusual — I would say ‘weird’ — by international standards," he said.

In most parts of the world, “The garden variety felony theft charge will not result in disenfranchisement,” he said.

Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel at LatinoJustice, a New York-based civil rights organization, ended Wednesday’s news conference with a question for people opposed to allowing felons to vote.

“What exactly are you afraid of?” he asked. “That people are actually going to vote? That people who vote have a different opinion than you? That’s a pretty ridiculous position to take.”

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

VOTER GUIDE IS COMING SOON: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18, with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

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