Editorial: Florida Legislature suppresses the right to vote

Voters made it clear with Amendment 4 that they want most felons to automatically regain their right to vote. Lawmakers erected roadblocks.
SCOTT KEELER   |   TimesRep. Jamie Grant, R- Tampa, center,  is congratulated by House members after passage of the Amendment 4 bill, Friday, May 3, 2019. On the right is Rep. Jennifer Sullivan.
SCOTT KEELER | TimesRep. Jamie Grant, R- Tampa, center, is congratulated by House members after passage of the Amendment 4 bill, Friday, May 3, 2019. On the right is Rep. Jennifer Sullivan.
Published May 9
Updated May 10

Floridians spoke clearly in November by overwhelmingly supporting a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for most felons who have completed their sentences. Yet the Florida Legislature has erected a confusing set of hurdles that will make Amendment 4 more of a dream for thousands of felons than a historic pathway to a second chance. This is nothing but a new tool created by Republican lawmakers to suppress the vote of minorities, and it has no place today in the nation’s third-largest state.

The amendment, approved by nearly 65 percent of voters, automatically restores voting rights for felons upon the completion of their sentences unless they were convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. Its intent was to overturn a 150-year-old racist law that had created an unworkable clemency system and effectively enforced a permanent ban against felons voting. The victory was a decisive public rebuke of a punitive clemency process and promised to restore voting rights of more than 1 million felons who are disproportionately minorities. But the bill the Legislature passed last week implements the amendment very narrowly, ignoring voter intent and creating an uneven, haphazard process that promises to continue the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of people.

Crafted in the session’s final days, the bill requires felons to pay off all fines, fees and restitution before registering to vote. Unlike most states, Florida still would not allow felons to vote while they pay down their obligations each month. The bill allows felons to petition a judge to waive those fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours. If the felon owes restitution to a victim, the victim must approve before a judge could waive the money or convert it to community service.

There was no need for the Legislature to get involved. And there certainly was no need for lawmakers to create a complicated and potentially expensive process for felons to exercise their new constitutional right. While the bill requires that restitution be paid in full, no one in Florida tracks restitution. Some felons don’t know whom they have to repay, as victims die and as companies close or fold. Requiring felons to petition a judge for financial relief also is complicated, and it imposes new burdens on an over-burdened court system.

There is no established process for handling these claims, providing legal counsel to those who need it or ensuring that the constitutional protection is applied equally statewide. During last week’s House debate, when one lawmaker voiced concerns that older or infirm felons might be too weak to work off their debts through community service, Republican Rep. James Grant of Tampa, shot back: “Somebody could serve in a soup kitchen.”

Hire a lawyer. Go to court. Work in a soup kitchen. Do Republicans in Tallahassee really believe that these hurdles are in line with a constitutional amendment aimed at restoring a person’s dignity? As a practical matter, the bill consigns many felons who are faithfully repaying their obligations to be banned from voting for years, or in some cases, life. And it extends a constitutional protection based solely on one’s ability to pay.

The Florida Legislature made a mess of Amendment 4 and dumped a big problem on the courts and local elections offices, yet Gov. Ron DeSantis plans to sign this unnecessary legislation into law. Tallahassee’s micromanagement and disregard for fundamental fairness is exactly why Florida voters took it upon themselves to address this matter of conscience in the first place.

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