TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Voting rights advocates have filed a lawsuit after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave 11th-hour approval to a law that could make it more difficult for felons to vote than what the voters initially intended.
During November’s election cycle, voters approved a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million felons.
Widely praised throughout the country, Amendment 4 was to re-enfranchise the largest number of people through a single voting law since the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The amendment that was voted on said “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation,” excluding those who have been convicted of murder or felony sexual offense.
However, the new law signed by DeSantis requires felons to pay any outstanding court fines or fees before they can cast their ballots in an election.
The American Civil Liberties Union describes the requirement as “two classes of returning citizens: a group wealthy enough to afford their voting rights and another group who cannot afford to vote.” The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) announced Tuesday the new initiative uses private donations to help felons who can’t afford what they owe.
The decision to take voting rights from felons in Florida came with the 1838 ratification of the state constitution, where Article VI Section 13 stated “laws shall be made by the General Assembly, to exclude from office, and from suffrage, those who shall have been or may thereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crime, or misdemeanor.”
In 1845, the law took effect and went mostly untouched, despite a 1974 bill that would have allowed felons to regain the right to vote upon the conclusion of their sentences.
That bill was deemed unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
According to 2016 data, there were an estimated 1.4 million people in Florida who were hoping the recently voted-upon legislation would help them regain their rights to vote.
The Sunshine State is one of only nine where felons may lose their votes permanently, according to ProCon, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group.
A 2007 analysis by the Florida Department of Corrections found that of 80,000 people awaiting rights restoration nearly 40% had not completed restitution payments.
Although the Department of Corrections didn’t have significant data on fines for the felon population, an analysis by the ACLU of Florida — assuming that about 1.4 million people have completed the incarceration portion of their sentences — then the 40 percent level of non-payment would lower the eligible population for rights restoration to about 840,000.
In Florida, more than $1 billion in felony fines were issued between 2013 and 2018 alone, according to annual reports from the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association.
In that five year period, an average of only 19 percent of that money was paid back per year.
Many activists are also pointing out the power of the state to waive payment of those fees.
But even with the new law taking effect, it’s estimated more than 800,000 felons have already become eligible to vote with Amendment 4 now in place.