Voting rights group raising money to pay felons' fees

Advocates who successfully campaigned for a referendum restoring voting rights to Florida's felons have launched a fund to help pay outstanding fees and fines that could prevent former convicts from voting.

Leaders of a voting rights group, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said at a news conference Tuesday that it hopes to raise $3 million through fundraising.

An estimated 1.4 million felons were given the chance to vote after a ballot measure, Amendment 4, passed last November. Of that number, about half a million have unpaid fees or fines that could prevent them from registering under legislation signed into law last week by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The grassroots coalition already has raised $80,000 in just a few days, said Desmond Meade, the group's executive director.

"This is going to go on as long as it needs to go on," Meade said. "We will be continuously fundraising to make sure ... that those who have demonstrated financial need, we will be working with them on a continuous basis."

The amendment restoring voting rights for felons other than convicted murderers and sex offenders was approved with 64.5% of the vote last fall. But the language said felons must complete their sentences, and Republicans in the Florida Legislature interpreted that to include restitution, court costs, fines and fees imposed by a judge at sentencing.

DeSantis signed the legislation last Friday. At the same time, he sent a letter to Secretary of State Laurel Lee, saying he was considering restoring other civil rights omitted in Amendment 4, such as holding public office and serving on a jury.

Democrats argued that requiring the payment of fines and fees constituted a "poll tax," creating a hurdle that voters didn't intend when they approved the amendment. They also argued the original intent of the felon voting ban in Florida's 1868 Constitution was to repress the minority vote because minorities historically have been disproportionately convicted of felonies, though an identical ban had been on the books since 1838 when Florida was still a territory.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that have supported the restoration of voting rights for felons filed a federal lawsuit Friday challenging the new state law.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has been meeting with judges, prosecutors and elections supervisors to explore ways that fees and fines can be waived in favor of community service, as permitted by the new law.

One top prosecutor, State Attorney Andrew Warren in Hillsborough County, said he is considering asking a judge to waive fines and fees en masse in favor of community service.

"Our goal is to fulfill the promise of Amendment 4," Warren tweeted last Saturday. "Together, we're going to get it done."

Meade said Tuesday that legislation wasn't going to detract from what Amendment 4 accomplished.

"No amount of legislation changes that fact," Meade said. "We destroyed a 150-year-old law that imposed that lifetime ban on Floridians.'

The Associated Press contributed to this report.