Column: Voters wanted to make it easier for ex-offenders to vote

The chairwoman of Hillsborough County Democratic Party, Ione Townsend, assists people wishing to register to vote in January after regaining that right because of Amendment 4. [Times photo]
The chairwoman of Hillsborough County Democratic Party, Ione Townsend, assists people wishing to register to vote in January after regaining that right because of Amendment 4. [Times photo]
Published April 1, 2019

No reasonable person would think Florida voters passed Amendment 4 to make it harder for felons to regain the right to vote than it was under former Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet in their role as Florida's Clemency Board. But that is where the Legislature is heading if it requires felons to pay all fines, fees and restitution before they could vote again.

In passing the amendment so resoundingly, voters made their will known, and the Legislature must be reasonable in its interpretation. Lawmakers could agree that payment of fines, fees, court costs and restitution isn't a prerequisite for voting. A felon would still have the financial obligations but could vote in the meantime.

Lawmakers are overemphasizing the relevance of a video of a Florida Supreme Court proceeding in May 2017, which featured Jon Mills, former speaker of the Florida House, supporting the ballot initiative. He said that fines, fees and restitution must be paid for restoration of former offender voting eligibility. But that hearing was limited in scope. Once a ballot initiative reaches a certain point, Florida's highest court routinely reviews whether its language is clear and addresses a single subject. The matter before the court was the language at face value — nothing more. Any pronouncements by Mills that day or the coalition backing the amendment are more distracting than binding. Yet some lawmakers are responding as if what Mills said was the actual text of the amendment.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is vice chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, asserted that the Legislature's path was informed by these pronouncements. And while the chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, characterizes himself as a strict constructionist, he thus far asserts that Amendment 4 excludes those convicted of first- and second-degree murder but also an expansive list of excludable "felony sexual offenses" that are not enumerated in the amendment. He also asserts that all fines, fees and restitution would have to be paid first. That language simply isn't there. It says "… upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation." It doesn't say including but not limited to parole and probation.

Rather than clamp down on Amendment 4, legislators could broaden any clarifying legislation to aid implementation statewide. For instance, eligibility to serve on a jury is a statutory right and holding public office is a logical extension of voting. The Legislature could decide that such complementary civil rights should be restored along with voting eligibility.

Research by the investigative arm of the Clemency Board indicates that post-sentence civil rights restoration leads to significant reductions in recidivism and more successful reentry. It wouldn't be unreasonable to conclude that would result in corresponding opportunity to earn an income. For these reasons, restoration of voting eligibility under Amendment 4 and other complementary civil rights should be as easy and inclusive as possible. That would be in the best interests of everybody — ex-offenders would have a voice in their governance, victims would be more likely to collect restitution, and community policing objectives would be advanced.

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Mark R. Schlakman is senior program director at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. He previously served as assistant general counsel and clemency aide for Gov. Lawton Chiles.