In the final step for what Democrats feel is the complete bastardization of a ballot amendment passed in 2018, the Republican-majority Florida House passed a bill Friday requiring former felons to pay off a host of fines and fees before getting their voting rights back. The measure is now headed for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) desk.
The bill’s passage ends months of impassioned fighting between the parties over how to implement Amendment 4, aka the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative.
Democrats have maintained that voters don’t want major legislative changes to the provision they overwhelmingly approved. The amendment makes a simple promise to to allow felons — excepting those convicted on murder or felony sex crimes charges — to get back the right to vote after they’ve served their time and paid restitution and court costs.
Republicans have scrambled to add legislative fine print, expanding the definitions of which crimes render felons ineligible for re-enfranchisement and which fees any prospective voter must first pay off.
Opponents of the burdensome financial restrictions — in the form of court fees, fines and restitution — have likened them to a poll tax. Statewide, felons will likely have to pay millions of dollars to get their voting rights back, thanks to the broad parameters in the law’s language and Florida’s unusually high court fees. Critics of the law fear that the Republican-backed provisions will result in lifelong disenfranchisement for poor black ex-felons, even those who committed nonviolent crimes.
The writing was on the wall for the bill by Thursday, when the Senate passed a version of it differing only slightly from the House one that passed last week. The Senate change involves a moderate compromise: a judge can decide whether or not to forgive the money owed, or to convert it into community service hours.
But, as Florida House Democrats Communications Director Marisol Samayoa told TPM, the compromise still falls far short of what Democrats wanted.
“In the House version, you owe money and you cannot vote until you pay it,” she said shortly before the vote Thursday. “In this version, a judge can decide. But there’s no mechanism, no standard for the judge to follow — it’s up to the judge’s discretion. So House Democrats don’t like it.”
Despite the Democrats’ opposition, the bill passed easily, largely along party lines with 67 yay votes to 42 nays.