Will Florida lawmakers fix their Amendment 4 mistake?
A federal judge has given the Legislature one more chance to revise a law preventing the will of the voters from being carried out, columnist Paula Dockery writes.
Paula Dockery
Paula Dockery [ Paula Dockery ]
Published Oct. 25, 2019

Florida voters ask the Legislature to change a law. Legislators refuse to do so year after year. Voters take it upon themselves — at great cost and effort — to put the issue on the ballot. It makes it to the ballot, and voters pass the constitutional amendment. The Legislature tries to negate it through legislation.

This happens often — class size, land conservation, medical marijuana and high-speed rail, to name a few.

But this time, I’m referring to Amendment 4, the restoration of voting rights to felons. It passed with 64.55 percent of the vote in November. The amendment language was clear and required no implementing language from the Legislature.

Voting rights were to be restored to most Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole and probation. It was estimated that 1.4 million Floridians could have their voting rights restored as a result.

True to form, the Republican-controlled Legislature interfered, passing SB 7066, which required felons to pay all restitution, fines and fees before they are eligible to vote. Amendment 4 did not mention restitution or fines.

Of course, this ended up in court. Those fighting to uphold the voters’ intent must pay their legal costs. On the other hand, the state uses taxpayer dollars to defend the Legislature’s action to circumvent the voters’ wishes.

It’s important to note that Florida is one of only three states that banned former convicts from voting for life.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other criminal justice groups representing 17 plaintiffs sued for a temporary injunction. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to dismiss their lawsuit was rejected.

Last wee, U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle halted the implementation of SB 7066. Unfortunately, his ruling only applies to these 17 plaintiffs.

His 55-page order came after a two-day hearing. Judge Hinkle wrote: “Each of these plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state’s only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay.”

University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith, an election expert, analyzed data from the state Department of Corrections and 58 of Florida’s 67 counties and presented his findings to the court: Nearly 80 percent of felons have outstanding debts that could prevent them from voting under the present law.

Hinkle’s ruling only temporarily blocked the law from applying to a handful of felons. While Hinkle didn’t directly rule on most of the constitutional challenges of the law yet, he did call the law an administrative nightmare and questioned lawmakers’ motives.

What’s next?

Hinkle set a trial date in federal court for April 2020 and encouraged legislators to revisit the law when they convene for session.

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DeSantis also has asked the Florida Supreme Court to issue an advisory opinion determining what “all terms of a sentence” could include. It’s worth mentioning that DeSantis has recently appointed three of the seven justices to the court that is now dominated by conservative justices.

Since it’s legally non-binding, is this just a PR stunt?

Will the Florida Legislature — which has started committee meetings in preparation for the start of the 2020 legislative session in January — modify the law to create a process to determine if each applicant has the resources to pay fees and fines? Will it address the logistical nightmare of figuring out if fees and fines are owed or have been paid?

It’s unlikely the Legislature will repeal its ill-conceived legislation, but will legislators tinker with it?

Of course, the governor and Legislature can just stall and appeal rulings they disagree with to hold up restoring voting rights past the 2020 elections. Even if they lose in court, they can try to delay registering over a million eligible voters by endless court appeals and legal maneuvers while handing taxpayers the bill.

The governor and state legislators should stop wasting our money, repeal SB 7066 and start honoring the intent of Florida voters, who want to restore voters’ rights to most felons who have served their sentences and are ready and eligible to vote.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA.