As evidence mounts about the impact of the huge hurdles the Florida Legislature created on restoring voting rights to felons as Floridians envisioned in approving Amendment 4, it’s clear Gov. Ron DeSantis made the right move by asking the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion clarifying the law. The sooner, the better.
Florida voters approved the constitutional amendment in November, clearing the way for those convicted of anything but murder or a sex offense to regain their voting rights “upon completion of all terms” of their felony sentence. But during this year’s legislative session, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill requiring that felons pay all court fines, fees and restitution to qualify for the automatic restoration of voting rights. Lawmakers effectively disenfranchised tens of thousands of felons with outstanding financial obligations, which was not voters’ intent. DeSantis signed the bill into law in June, undercutting much of the promise of Amendment 4 and prompting civil rights groups to sue.
But a new study filed this month on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case found that “there is little doubt that (the law) will severely limit the ability of eligible Floridians with a past felony conviction to be able to register to vote.” The study’s author, Daniel Smith, a noted elections expert at the University of Florida, said a preliminary analysis of partial data shows that fewer than one in five whose voting rights were restored by Amendment 4 have paid everything off. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Langston Taylor reported, only about 18 percent of the 375,000 people examined in the study - or about 67,000 - showed a zero balance in records from local clerks of court.
This is the entirely predictable outcome of the Legislature’s needless meddling. As the study reports, the state does not maintain a publicly accessible, centralized database of felons who could regain their voting rights under the law, making it “practically impossible to know definitively how many persons in Florida with a felony conviction are eligible to register to vote” under the new provision. The study based its findings on data provided by court clerks in 48 of Florida’s 67 counties, and it found 82 percent of felons who thought they gained their voting rights were disenfranchised instead, thanks to outstanding financial obligations associated with their case. And the analysis concluded that black felons “are significantly less likely” than whites to regain their voting rights because of monies owed.
The Legislature neutered the amendment with language that creates an unlevel playing field from one county to the next and a disparity for African Americans. The report acknowledges that nobody knows how widespread the impacts could be; among the counties not even included in the study were some of Florida’s biggest, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward, Brevard and Manatee.
Some local prosecutors, such as Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, are trying to create work-arounds—“rocket dockets” that get debt forgiveness cases quickly before a judge. But that will benefit only some felons in certain jurisdictions, an insufficient cure for a cynical effort that denies equal access statewide to a constitutional right. Some criminal court judges say they don’t even consider court costs and fees to be within the four corners of a criminal sentence. The Florida Supreme Court should offer guidance at the earliest opportunity on an issue fundamental to the democratic process—and it should honor the will of the voters.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news