The Florida House approved a controversial measure Wednesday requiring people with felony convictions to repay all of the financial obligations ordered as part of their sentence before they can vote again.
The legislation comes after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November to repeal the state’s lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions. Now, people with felonies can vote once they have entirely completed their sentence, including probation and parole. The constitutional amendment only exempts people convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses from having their voting rights restored. Its passage was heralded as an enormous step forward for Florida and could affect up to 1.4 million people.
The groups who backed the constitutional amendment strongly opposed the measure the Florida House approved 71-45 along party lines Wednesday. Many people in the criminal justice system accumulate huge fines and fees and requiring people to repay those debts before they can vote will effectively continue to disenfranchise people with felony convictions. The Florida House bill would require people to repay any restitution, as well as fines and fees ordered by a judge ― even if those obligations are converted to a civil lien ― before they can vote again. The bill does not require people to repay fines and fees they accrue beyond the judge’s sentence in order to vote.
Supporters of November’s amendment that repealed felony voting prohibitions say it is acceptable to require people to pay restitution ordered by a judge or fines and fees that are part of one’s sentence. But they say the amendment does not allow the state to require fines and fees on top of that before they can vote. They also say that people whose legal financial obligations are converted to liens because they can’t pay them should be able to vote.
“Today’s partisan vote in the House represented a failure to live up to the bipartisan commitment Florida voters showed with the passage of Amendment 4,” Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the main group that pushed for passage of the constitutional amendment, said in a statement.
Kara Gross, the legislative director of the ACLU of Florida, which strongly opposed the measure, said it was obvious the bill was contrary to what voters intended when they approved the constitutional amendment.
“Disturbingly, this legislation will cause defacto lifetime disenfranchisement for large swaths of formerly incarcerated individuals who have completed their sentences — precisely the opposite of the entire purpose of Amendment 4,” she said in a statement. “This bill merely replaces one unjust system for another.”
Florida Rep. James Grant (R), who introduced the bill, strongly defended against critics who accused him and fellow Republicans of trying to limit who can vote. He argued that those who supported November’s amendment suggested that requiring repayment of fines and fees would be acceptable when they asked the Supreme Court to approve the proposal for the ballot.
Speaking on the House floor Wednesday he said people who committed felonies disenfranchised themselves.
“This bill does not disenfranchise anyone,” he said.
The Florida Senate is still considering its own version of the legislation. The Senate version of the bill requires people with felonies to repay all restitution before they can vote again. But unlike the House version, the Senate bill would allow people to vote if fines and fees get converted to a civil lien. Lawmakers are expected to eventually negotiate a final version of the bill, according to Florida Politics.
While Volz still has concerns with the Senate bill, he said it was closer to something advocates could support.
“We believe the Senate bill better reflects the spirit of Amendment 4 and hope that Republicans and Democrats can come together to produce a bipartisan bill that aligns with the will of Florida’s voters,” he said.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, and other critics said the measure passed in the House amounted to a “poll tax.” Although the 24th amendment does prohibit poll taxes, nine states directly require people with felony convictions to repay financial obligations before they can vote again, according to a 2016 report. The 14th Amendment gives states the right to disenfranchise people “for participation in rebellion, or other crime.”
In March, Grant rejected comparisons to a poll tax.
“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” he said during a hearing.