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A small victory for Amendment 4, and fairness

Because of lawmakers, a voter effort to help felons ended up in court. Sue Carlton asks: Could this latest ruling be a sign?
Amendment 4 aimed to expand voting rights to felons who had done their time. [JAVIER FERGO  |  AP]
Amendment 4 aimed to expand voting rights to felons who had done their time. [JAVIER FERGO | AP]
Published Oct. 24, 2019

For the people of Florida, Amendment 4 was a big win.

And then a loss.

And just last week, a small but significant win all over again when a judge said no, we don’t keep people from voting because they are too poor to make good on their debts. (He did not say: because that would be un-American, but that’s what it sounded like to me.)

What happened on the ballot last November was pretty remarkable for a state in which disenfranchising voters is like a home-cooked dish we’re famous for.

Despite that tradition, nearly two-thirds of Florida’s electorate agreed that felons who had completed their sentences, including probation or parole, should automatically get back their voting rights. (This didn’t apply to anyone convicted of the serious crimes of murder or sex offenses.)

Notably, this happened in a state where previously, a felon who wanted to become a voting citizen again had to wait years to even ask. Then he could plead his case before a clemency board led by the governor that could say no for any reason. The process moved, as a federal judge observed recently, “at glacial speed.”

And since many of these voter-hopefuls were presumed to lean Democrat, you can probably figure out any political motivations that might have been afoot.

But we passed Amendment 4 in a big way, and it was expected to potentially empower thousands of Floridians on Election Day.

Not so fast. Some legislators decided the law needed clarifying. (Or undercutting, or weakening, take your pick.) So they passed a law that said completing “all terms” of a sentence meant making good on all court-ordered fines, fees and costs, too.

Many of Florida’s felons who would otherwise have been eligible to vote under Amendment 4 have unpaid fees and fines. And many can’t afford to pay them. So no vote.

Yes, there’s an argument to be made that people who have the means should be required to pay up, or should at least be making a good-faith effort. But can we also agree that keeping someone from voting because they are too poor is not exactly a proud American value?

Naturally, the whole mess is being duked out in court with the big 2020 election looming.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that genuinely not having enough money to make good should not keep someone from voting, that those too poor to pay up should get to register to vote.

His ruling — granting a preliminary injunction in a case involving 17 felons — cut both ways: The judge also said that yes, completing all conditions of your sentence before you get the vote back does indeed include paying your court-ordered financial obligations.

Not having the money to pay, however, should not be a reason to withhold someone’s vote. His thoughtful, nuanced decision only holds until there’s a trial.

But in a state known for pushing back people who are trying to pull themselves up — who want to participate as citizens again — maybe this a good sign.

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