TAMPA — The organization spearheading efforts to make felons who have completed their sentences eligible to vote has given $1.5 million to the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court to pay off outstanding fines and fees.
The money could help more than 1,000 people in Hillsborough County register to vote. It is part of a total of $25 million that the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has raised to help Floridians vote. The money came from donations from celebrities such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and from regular citizens.
The coalition says it has distributed checks to clerk’s offices in 60 of the state’s 67 counties.
“I think this is a day for all of Florida to celebrate,” said Desmond Meade, the coalition’s executive director.
Meade and other coalition members arrived Monday morning on a blue and red bus in front of the George Edgecomb Courthouse in downtown Tampa. They carried with them a giant check for $1,570,000, payable to the Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Pat Frank, the outgoing Hillsborough clerk, said in a news conference that her office has helped more than 800 people pay off more than $700,000 in outstanding fines and fees.
“All we want to do is give them the right to be full citizens, dignified full citizens," Frank said. “I think we have to encourage everybody to continue to fight.”
Amendment 4, which was approved by more than two-thirds of Florida voters in 2018, restored the right to vote to nearly all people with felony convictions who had completed “all terms” of their sentences. It was estimated that the amendment to the state constitution would expand the right to vote to 1.4 million people with felony convictions.
But after its passage, the Florida legislature approved a bill clarifying that “all terms” meant all court fees, fines and restitution handed down as part of a sentence. An estimated 80% of people convicted of felonies still owe money on their cases, but it’s often difficult for people to pay or to find out how much they owe.
Critics have said the action by the legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis created a “poll tax.” The law has been subject to court challenges. It’s expected that the issue will rise to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Before that happens, though, the Amendment 4 movement has worked to help pay what’s owed.
“No Floridian should be forced to choose between putting food on the table and voting," Meade said.
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None of the money the coalition has distributed came from Michael Bloomberg, Meade said. The former New York City mayor has pledged $16 million to help Florida felons vote.
A significant challenge has been identifying who still owes money and how much. In Hillsborough County, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of people owe money to the court, but an exact total is uncertain.
Meade’s group asked Frank’s office to assist them in recent months to identify felons who owed $2,200 or less. Frank’s office identified 841 people whose cases dated back between three and five years.
Frank determined that the law allowed her to forgive 40 percent of the individual debts. That meant a person who owed $1,000 would have to pay only $600.
The coalition helped pay off the rest, a total of $771,353.
The 841 people whose debts have been paid can now register to vote. To vote in next month’s election, they must have registered by Monday.
The additional $1.5 million will allow the Clerk’s Office to continue to clear outstanding debts.
“It means the world to me,” said Angela Judge, an east Tampa resident who has fought for years to regain her right to vote. A minor theft conviction from more than 30 years ago has kept her from voting since the year 2000, even though her case was long closed.
She immediately registered to vote when Amendment 4 passed. But she was stunned to learn she still owed a small sum from years ago.
“Having that fundamental right is so important,” she said. “It means I can determine my own path. I can determine my own future.”