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  1. Opinion

Florida Legislature has one more chance on voting rights | Editorial

A federal judge appears poised to make changes to fairly implement Amendment 4 if lawmakers don’t.

Florida lawmakers have one last chance in the legislative session that begins Tuesday to carry out the voters’ will in automatically restoring voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentences. A federal judge in October ruled that Florida must allow felons to vote if they can’t afford to pay their court-ordered fees, fines and restitution, effectively presaging the end to a new state law that narrowed the constitutional change Florida voters adopted in 2018 to give felons easier access to the ballot box. Lawmakers have a clear path ahead, and they shouldn’t abdicate this responsibility to the federal courts.

Florida voters righted an historic wrong in 2018 by passing Amendment 4, which was aimed at ending a burdensome process for felons to regain their voting rights. The measure automatically restores voting rights for most felons (except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense), relieving thousands from the cost and hassle of having to plead their case through an uphill process before the state’s Clemency Board.

But last year, state legislators passed a law that narrowed this new constitutional guarantee, requiring that felons pay all court fees, fines and restitution before being allowed to vote. The move drastically undercut the promise of Amendment 4, which was believed to restore the right to vote to up to 1.4 million Floridians. Hundreds of thousands of those people are too poor to meet all their financial obligations, or at least to pay them back immediately. The net effect is that many would never be able to vote, leaving them as politically voiceless as they were before the amendment was adopted by nearly two-thirds of Florida voters.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in October that Florida cannot bar felons from voting merely because they can’t pay outstanding financial obligations. Though his ruling applied only to the 17 felons who initiated a legal challenge to the law, Hinkle provided an early view of the legal precedent that would shape a trial scheduled for April when the law’s core constitutional deficiency will be at issue.

“The state of Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution,” Hinkle wrote. And the judge found no reason to treat restitution differently from other costs a felon may face, such as court fines and fees. Further, Hinkle noted that the state was obligated to put “an appropriate procedure” in place for felons to register if their only barrier otherwise was the inability to pay outstanding financial obligations.

The court was right to give lawmakers another chance to fix the mess they created with their narrow implementation of Amendment 4. The easiest option would be to change the state’s voter registration form to allow felons to declare themselves as indigent. Other options include allowing felons on payment plans to vote, or waiving costs as a precondition to voting.

The whole intent of Amendment 4 was to help felons reintegrate into society. But lawmakers created hurdles that effectively maintained the status quo. This legislative session offers a face-saving opportunity to respect the voters’ will before the federal courts do it for them.

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

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