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  1. Opinion

Change law to follow voter intent on felon voting rights | Pat Frank

Legislators erected barriers last year for felons whose voting rights should be automatically restored. Here’s how they should remove them.

Last month, 31 people in Hillsborough County reclaimed something most of us take for granted: the right to vote. Under my authority as the clerk of court, I reduced their fines and fees by 40 percent and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition paid the rest. I was pleased to help.

On any given day, even more people walk out of the courthouse without the right to vote. Every year, about 10,000 people are convicted of felonies in Hillsborough, an average of 40 every day court is in session. And despite Amendment 4, a state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies (excluding those convicted of murder or sexual offenses), Gov. Ron Desantis signed SB 7066 into law last year. That law will prevent many from ever being able to vote again because it conditions voting rights restoration on the payment of outstanding fines, fees, court costs and restitution.

This law, crafted with the leadership of two Tampa Bay legislators, does include avenues so that fines, fees, and costs are waived, reduced or converted to community service for the limited purpose of voting. But it has also created an enormous burden for citizens seeking to reclaim their voting rights and for offices like mine that must determine how much someone owes. Restitution is especially complicated, because no single agency tracks that. Most importantly, the law violates the 24th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits making voting contingent on paying taxes.

Some cases, like those of the 31 people we helped last month, are easy to figure out. But many are complex. Take, for example, the case of Clifford Tyson, a Tampa pastor with a felony record dating back to the 1970s who is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the Florida law. A Reuters report in October summarized his dilemma: “Tyson searched court records, first on his own, then with the help of a nonprofit legal advocacy group…The records, viewed by Reuters, show potential sums ranging from $846 to a couple thousand dollars related to crimes he committed in the late 1970s and 1990s. Tyson says he won’t risk voting until Florida authorities can tell him for sure.”

I directed my staff to clarify Pastor Tyson’s obligations. That took five hours of digging through old microfiche. The challenge Pastor Tyson has faced in determining if he is eligible to vote is undeniable. Multiply that by the tens of thousands of people like him in Hillsborough, and in the 66 other counties in Florida, and you can see the scope of the problem.

The 24th Amendment says the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.” While fines, fees and court costs are not a “poll tax,” they are used to pay to run our courts and for general government expenses. In fact, last year the Legislature diverted $111 million in fines, fees and costs to the state’s general fund. That sure sounds like a tax to me.

The U.S. Supreme Court seems to agree. It has defined a tax as an “enforced contribution to provide for the support of the government” and explained that a tax “produces at least some revenue for the Government.”

When Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 to automatically restore voting rights to those who have completed all terms of their sentences, I doubt many realized that 90 percent of fines, fees and court costs are never paid. After all, voters thought they were removing a barrier to voting, not erecting a new one.

So what’s the solution?

The Florida Legislature should amend the law so anyone convicted of a felony reclaims the right to vote upon the completion of their prison sentence, parole or probation. Those with past convictions would still be required to pay outstanding obligations, including restitution, even as they are allowed to vote. That would remove the unconstitutional financial barrier and maintain the judge’s original sentence. I think everyone wants someone convicted of a felony to rejoin society. The right to vote is fundamental to being a productive citizen.

Pat Frank is Hillsborough County clerk of court.