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Florida passed a historic expansion of voting rights. Now Republicans want to hobble it.

The Florida House recently passed a bill requiring people with felony records to pay all court costs and fees before they can vote.

Supporters of Florida’s Amendment 4 gather as a man registers to vote following his felony conviction.
Supporters of Florida’s Amendment 4 are outraged over a pair of GOP-sponsored proposals that could affect the restoration of voting rights.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Florida House has passed a measure requiring people with felony records to fully pay all financial obligations related to their offenses before they can have their voting rights restored. Voting rights advocates have heavily criticized the proposal, saying the measure would limit the impact of a 2018 ballot initiative that restored voting rights to people with felony records.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, in a 71-45 vote Wednesday evening, legislators voted to require people with felony records to pay restitution, as well as all court fines and fees — including fees that have been converted to a civil judgment — before regaining their voting rights.

The measure is one of two bills Republican legislators have introduced this year addressing how to implement a 2018 ballot initiative known as Amendment 4. The amendment restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people with felony records after they completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”

The Florida state Senate is also debating a version of the bill, but that one only requires a person to fully repay restitution — including restitution converted to a civil lien — before being able to vote; court fines and fees are not included. The Senate bill has not been put to a vote yet, but it is expected to be soon, as the differences between the two measures will need to be resolved before the legislative session ends on May 3.

Local activists and state Democrats say the House measure in particular undermines one of the largest expansions of voting rights in recent decades by effectively requiring people to pay excessive — and in some cases insurmountable — fees to vote.

Some critics, including presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), have even argued that the House’s bill effectively functions as a modern-day “poll tax,” a reference to a controversial practice that was most notably used to limit African Americans’ voting rights.

Advocates say that in Florida, many of those with felony convictions, a group that is disproportionately black and may lack employment or large incomes, would be unable to pay these costs.

The House proposal “will inevitably prevent individuals from voting based on the size of the person’s bank account,” Kara Gross, a legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times in March. “Those who have the financial means will vote, and those who can’t, won’t.”

Republican legislators counter that any financial penalties assessed after a crime should be seen as part of a person’s sentence.

Floridians voted to give people with felony records the right to vote again. Republican legislators want them to pay first.

Before Amendment 4 passed with 65 percent of the vote last year, Florida was one of a handful of states that prohibited people with felony records from regaining their voting rights after serving their sentence, a rule that dated back to the post-Civil War era and was initially passed to limit black voting power in Florida.

Prior to Amendment 4’s passage, Floridians who wanted to vote again had to petition a state parole board for the opportunity, a process that could take years and varied depending on who occupied the governor’s mansion. The state routinely rejected thousands of applications, leaving many people — a disproportionate number of them black — unable to vote.

Amendment 4 changed this by automatically allowing most people who had completed their sentences to register to vote, though those convicted of felony sexual offenses or murder were still barred.

When it comes to the two Republican proposals on Amendment 4, the House proposal has drawn the most attention. Critics have focused on the fact that the measure would require people with felony records to pay any “financial obligation arising from a felony conviction,” even those not directly connected to their original sentence. In other words, a person could finish their sentence, but because they haven’t paid off the additional fees, they would still be unable to vote.

This is a higher standard than what was previously required in Florida; under the old rights restoration system, a person only needed to finish paying restitution before they applied for their voting rights.

To understand why this is a problem, it’s helpful to explain how three things — court fines, restitution, and “user fees” — are different. Court fines (usually financial penalties assessed as part of the punishment for a crime) and restitution (usually a payment a defendant is ordered to give the victim of their crime) are usually handed down as part of a person’s sentence. There’s been a debate in Florida over if “user fees,” the various administrative costs tied to a person’s case moving through the justice system, are also connected to a sentence.

Amendment 4’s supporters argue that they are not.

Mark Joseph Stern summed it up this way at Slate:

To finance its criminal justice system, Florida imposes both fines and “user fees” on defendants upon conviction. Individuals may be fined up to $500,000 for their crime, then saddled with a mind-boggling array of administrative fees. Defendants must pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to fund court costs, “crime prevention” programs, and local jails. They must pay a fee to apply for a public defender, to receive medical treatment in prison, to reinstate a suspended driver’s license, and to participate in drug abuse treatment. Those who receive probation must pay “surcharges” to fund their supervision or room-and-board at a halfway house, as well as electronic monitoring and urinalysis.

Some of the groups that advocated for Amendment 4 say that a person should only be required to pay the amounts specifically mandated as part of their sentence before getting their voting rights back, and that people who have had their financial obligations converted to civil liens (a judgment that allows the poor or those owing large debts to slowly pay what they can over time) should also have their voting rights restored. Others argue that money should have zero effect on who is eligible to vote.

But both camps argue that adding in the other fees would make the costs of regaining voting rights extremely expensive for poor people with felony records, requiring them to spend years or decades paying back the costs before they could vote again.

“What the barriers proposed in this bill do is nearly guarantee that people will miss election after election … because they cannot afford to pay financial obligations,” Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the ACLU, told NBC News. She has argued that the state should let people vote once they have finished their prison, probation, and parole sentences, and that they be allowed to continue paying the fines and fees after regaining their voting rights.

The structure of Florida’s justice system could make enforcing this financial requirement a complicated process

Navigating the labyrinth of fines and fees could be especially difficult in Florida, which has become so reliant on financial charges levied against people in the justice system that criminal justice reform advocates call the state one of the worst practitioners of “cash register justice” in America. In 1998, Florida passed a constitutional amendment that requires that parts of the court system be funded by these fines and fees.

And in 2010, an analysis from researchers at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found that fines and fees have become a top source of revenue for the state, noting that “since 1996, Florida [has] added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants and, at the same time, eliminated most exemptions for those who cannot pay.”

Earlier this year, local Florida news outlet WLRN reported that more than “$1 billion in felony fines were issued between 2013 and 2018,” according to reports from a statewide group.

“Over that five year period, an average of only 19 percent of that money was paid back per year,” the report noted. Part of the problem, apparently, is that some of these unpaid fines and fees can be sent to debt collection agencies, which can add charges that significantly increase the amount a person owes.

While Florida Republicans support making people pay before being able to vote, politicians have bristled at any assertion that they are acting unfairly, or are effectively levying a poll tax on voters. “To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes what a poll tax actually is,” Republican Rep. James Grant said in March.

The Miami Herald notes that another difficulty that could arise with the repayment requirement is the fact that Florida currently does not have any system tracking court fines, fees, or restitution — and creating one could cost millions of dollars.

Currently, the Florida House is discussing a proposal that would allocate an additional $2 million to the state’s Commission on Offender Review. The money would be used to hire more people to review the applications of people looking to have their voting rights restored.

Republicans argue that Amendment 4 needs additional clarification. Advocates disagree.

The stakes are high in this debate, as the outcome could limit the impact of one of the biggest voting rights victories in recent decades by reducing the number of people eligible to immediately register to vote. That impact could be especially significant for black Floridians, who make up a disproportionate number of those disenfranchised.

Vox’s German Lopez explained Amendment 4’s significance last year:

In 2016, the Sentencing Project estimated that 6.1 million people convicted of felonies can’t vote in the US, including many still in prison, on probation, or on parole, and some who have completed their sentences. Florida, with its harsh law, made up more than a quarter of that total — with 1.6 million people in the state barred from voting in 2016. In total, more than 10.4 percent of Florida’s voting-age population couldn’t vote due to a felony record. (The national numbers are likely outdated because some states have relaxed their laws since 2016. But Florida, with its law still in place, remains a big outlier.)

So if Amendment 4 does pass, it will amount to the most significant expansion of voting rights in America in decades — since the women’s suffrage movement and federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“At the end of the day, when a debt is paid, it’s paid,” Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, one of the groups that campaigned for Amendment 4, told Lopez at the time. “We all want to be forgiven.”

But after Florida voters backed the amendment last year, then-Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis and other party figures argued that the ballot measure was not clear, and that the legislature would need to work on “implementing language.” It led to complaints that politicians were looking to thwart the voting rights of a group of disproportionately black voters for political reasons. (While not every person disenfranchised before Amendment 4’s passage supports Democrats, a detailed report from Mother Jones’s Ari Berman cited data suggesting that many reenfranchised people who decide to vote would.)

While the debate over court fines and fees has attracted the most attention, earlier this year advocates also voiced concerns about two other proposals that were floated by Republican lawmakers.

In the House bill, lawmakers included language on how they wanted to define “felony sexual offenses,” one of the two classes of offenses that would bar a person from getting their voting rights restored. Those involved in the push for Amendment 4 say only people who committed “serious” offenses like rape and sexual assault should be affected by this, but the House’s proposal could widen that to include someone convicted of prostitution, or someone who sold adult content near a school. Republicans say they are simply relying on legal definitions of the offenses.

A Republican legislator also floated a proposal that would expand the definition of “murder” — the second class of felonies left out of Amendment 4 — to include attempted murder. Advocates say the amendment is clearly written to only exclude those convicted of first-and second-degree murder, and that adding attempted murder to this group would be overly broad.

The Senate version of the legislation initially included a similar definition of murder, but that language was removed from the bill in early April in an attempt to gain support from Amendment 4’s supporters. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, the Senate bill would limit the definition of “felony sexual offenses” to instances where a person is required to register as a sex offender.

The bill also abandons the House’s focus on additional court fees by allowing those under civil liens to register, but the bill would require people with felony records to pay any restitution ordered by a judge. That proposal isn’t as strict as the House’s version, but some Amendment 4 supporters argue that at this point, Republicans should completely abandon tying any financial requirements to Amendment 4.

Voting rights advocates also argue that legislators must respect the will of the majority of voters who supported the amendment in 2018. “We believe the people deserve better than partisan legislation determining who can vote in our state,” Meade and Neil Volz, both leaders of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, explained in a March Tampa Bay Times op-ed.