1. Opinion

Editorial: Don't narrow felon voting rights

Florida voters righted an historic wrong in November by approving Amendment 4, which automatically restores voting rights for most felons. But now the Republican-led Legislature is trying to limit that constitutional guarantee by creating hurdles that go far beyond the plain language that voters embraced. This is another example of a meddlesome Legislature ignoring the people's will and exploiting the chance to restrict voting rights.

The ballot language is crystal clear: Felons would have their voting rights automatically restored upon the completion of their sentences unless they were "convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense." The cause was so fundamentally just, especially given the punitive clemency process instituted by former Gov. Sen. Rick Scott, that nearly 65 percent of voters approved it.

Now Republicans who control the Legislature want to move the goalposts by passing legislation that further restricts which felons can automatically have their rights restored. The House bill includes a range of sex crimes beyond rape that could rise to the felony level and become disqualifying, including prostitution and locating an adult business within 2,500 feet of a school. The Senate's definition of "murder" would include attempted murder, even though the two are recognized as separate crimes under Florida statutes. And both chambers would bar automatic restoration of voting rights until felons pay all restitution, fines and court fees, though the Senate bill includes a path to relax the payment of fines and fees.

This is what happens when legislators propose ways to implement an amendment that was crystal clear in its intent. The whole purpose of the amendment is to make it easier for all but the most violent offenders to re-integrate into society. The point wasn't to pile on lower-level, repeat offenders. It wasn't to blur the meaningful distinction between murder and attempted murder. And it wasn't intended to provide the Legislature with a new tool - court costs and fees - to bar felons from voting.

The practical effect is that some felons repaying large amounts of restitution would be banned from voting for life, even though many felons are faithfully complying with repayment schedules overseen by the courts. The amendment's supporters acknowledge that is required. But lumping in court costs imposed by the state because the Legislature refuses to adequately fund the court system is merely an attempt by Republicans to reduce the number of felons who should be eligible to vote now. And court costs do not necessarily attach only to convicted felons; defendants who have their adjudication withheld face these costs, too.

Under existing law, financial obligations in criminal cases take into account a person's ability to pay, and outstanding amounts constitute a civil lien. The Senate bill includes language that could spare the full payment of fees and fines converted into a civil lien from disqualifying a felon from voting. But this narrow accommodation, which does not include court costs, does not go far enough.

In another misdirection play, Republicans justify their position by pointing to comments about court fees by a lawyer for the amendment's supporters when he appeared before the Florida Supreme Court. But those comments are not conclusive, and they are not a smoking gun that justifies this political attack.

The Legislature is using so-called "clarifying" language to rewrite the voters' will. Long before the Legislature butted in, local elections supervisors across Florida were getting along just fine registering felons, a number that could reach more than 130,000 in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties alone. Florida voters adopted Amendment 4 because they knew the only hope for this historic change rested in the collective power of the people. The voters have spoken, there is no need for implementing language and the Legislature should stop interfering.