TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - Shortly after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an omnibus elections bill Friday, a coalition of voting-rights and civil-rights groups announced they had filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's plan for carrying out a consitutional amendment designed to restore felons' voting rights.
The 74-page lawsuit, filed in Gainesville, alleges the newly signed law "unconstitutionally denies the right to vote to returning citizens with a past felony conviction based solely on their inability to pay outstanding fines, fees, or restitution."
The complaint, which names as plaintiffs the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Orange County Branch of the NAACP and several felons, also alleges the measure is unlawful "because it was motivated, at least in part, by a racially discriminatory purpose."
A partisan firestorm erupted in the waning days of this year's legislative session after Republicans tacked onto the elections package provisions aimed at implementing the voter-approved constitutional amendment that restores the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences.
The addition of the provisions to implement what appeared as Amendment 4 on the November ballot quickly overshadowed many other election-related features of the bill (SB 7066).
Under the bill, felons will have to repay all of their financial obligations before their voting rights are restored.
Backers of the amendment maintain that the language --- approved in a party-line vote on the final full day of the legislative session --- isn’t what voters intended.
The amendment granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
Democrats and many other Amendment 4 supporters say the legislation is too restrictive and would block people from being able to vote.
“SB 7066 was never intended to follow the people’s mandate under Amendment 4,” Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said in a statement Friday night. “It was an unnecessary bill designed for the sole purpose of permanently disenfranchising as many ex-felons as possible.”
But DeSantis appeared Friday to have grudgingly signed the measure, indicating he believes the amendment restores voting rights to some undeserving felons and doesn’t grant enough rights to others.
The amendment did not address other civil rights, such as the right to hold office or to serve on a jury, DeSantis said in a transmittal letter to Secretary of State Laurel Lee.
“I am considering whether to seek restoration of all civil rights to some of those whose rights were restored by Amendment 4. However, I would only consider restoring rights to those convicted of non-violent offenses,” the Republican governor wrote.
“Amendment 4 restores --- without regard to the wishes of the victims --- voting rights to violent felons, including felons convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery and kidnapping, so long as those felons completed all terms of their sentences. I think this was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders,” DeSantis wrote.
Under the law, felons will have to repay all restitution and all fees and fines ordered by courts, not including “any fines, fees, or costs that accrue after the date the obligation is ordered as part of the sentence.”
The financial obligations would be considered completed if they are paid in full, if a victim or the court “forgives” the restitution, or if a judge allows felons to serve community service in lieu of payment.
Black lawmakers took umbrage at the linkage between money, voting and people’s felony status, saying it is a reminder of Florida’s ugly Jim Crow-era policies aimed at keeping blacks from the ballot box.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice filed the lawsuit Friday.
"It (the law) creates two classes of returning citizens: those who are wealthy enough to vote and those who cannot afford to," the lawsuit said.
While the Amendment 4 issue has drawn much of the attention, other parts of the broad elections package will increase voters’ access to the polls and strengthen processes to ensure ballots are counted, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told The News Service of Florida.
But he acknowledged that he and his counterparts throughout the state “were a little unhappy” that bill included the Amendment 4 implementation, which he said would have been better as a stand-alone measure.
While some felons began registering to vote as early as January, the legislation has created confusion for many others who are unsure whether their financial obligations have been zeroed out and are fearful of getting in trouble, Earley said.
Under the law, felons who registered to vote between Jan. 8 and July 1 but who haven’t fulfilled their financial obligations won’t be prosecuted.
Earley urged felons who feel they’ve completed their sentences to register to vote. State elections officials will vet the voting applications and flag people who are ineligible, as is currently the process. The lists of flagged applicants are sent to county supervisors.
“Each supervisor will get information from the Department of State and we will contact them and give them a chance to let us know whether they think they’ve completed their sentencing, so we can work that out,” Earley said. “The worst that’s going to happen is they may be taken back off the rolls. But I certainly don’t want people to feel threatened or fearful about trying to get registered to vote if they were previously convicted of a felony, because unless it’s obvious intent to defraud the system, they aren’t going to be prosecuted.”
Earley, meanwhile, extolled the portions of the new law that change the state’s vote-by-mail system after the tumultuous 2018 elections.
The new law changes from six to 10 the number of days prior to an election for voters to request that ballots be mailed to them.
The law also allows supervisors to start counting mail-in ballots a week earlier, from 15 days to 22 days before the election. The extra time is particularly helpful for large counties with multi-page ballots, Earley said.
And the law will give voters until 5 p.m. two days after the election to “cure” signatures on mail-in ballots that don’t match signatures on file with elections offices. Voters who cast provisional ballots on Election Day will have the same benefit.
Mismatched signatures were an issue in one of the lawsuits from last year’s elections, which resulted in three statewide recounts.
“I think 7066 for the most part does help improve the election process,” Earley said. “I think it serves in a big way to improve people’s access to the polls and then get their votes counted.”