Voting rights law draws court fight, registration push

Civil rights groups are hoping a federal judge will strike down a new Florida law that they say does not properly carry out a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

But despite the legal challenges, some backers of what appeared as Amendment 4 on the November ballot are taking a different tack: They’re busy trying to register “returning citizens” and help others pay outstanding debts that, under the new law, could keep them off the voting rolls.

“Where others see obstacles, we see opportunities,” Neil Volz, who works for a committee that helped get the amendment on the ballot, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Monday.

Lawyers representing voting-rights and civil-rights groups, as well as more than a dozen Floridians who’ve been convicted of felonies, filed three lawsuits in federal court Friday, immediately after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law an omnibus elections measure (SB 7066) that included the implementation of Amendment 4.

Under the new law, Floridians convicted of felonies will have to pay financial obligations related to their crimes before they are eligible to have voting rights restored.

The legal challenges, combined into one case by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, allege the legislation unconstitutionally “creates two classes of citizens,” depending on their ability to pay financial obligations that many don’t even know about.

The law, which went into effect Monday, is a throwback to Jim Crow-era policies aimed at preventing black Floridians from voting, argued lawyers for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“Florida has a long, troubling history with voter suppression tactics, many explicitly motivated by racial discrimination --- including the very felony disenfranchisement provision revised by Amendment 4,” they wrote in a 74-page complaint filed Friday.

The amendment, approved by more than 64 percent of Florida voters in November, 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.” 

The meaning of “all terms of sentence” became a flashpoint during this spring’s legislative session, sparking an emotionally charged, partisan schism over whether the amendment required payment of court-ordered fees, fines and restitution when the financial obligations are part of a sentence, as is almost always the case.

Black Democrats were particularly incensed about the linkage between finances and voting, which the lawsuit refers to as an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

The law “conditions plaintiffs’ right to vote on their wealth and penalizes returning citizens who are unable to pay,” in violation of the U.S. Constitution, the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote.

And the statute also will “prevent or at least chill voter registration and voting” because the state lacks a unified system tracking the amount of money owed by people convicted of felonies, the lawsuit alleges.

“It is really, really difficult to get the information that you need to be confident that you’re up to date with your legal financial obligations,” Myrna Peréz, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, said in a telephone interview. “The databases don’t speak with each other. They’re incomplete. They’re inaccurate. They’re out of date. It’s really hard to prove that there isn’t going to be some other contradictory database out there.”

Many people “who have been working so hard to get their lives back online don’t want to take a risk,” of registering to vote if they are uncertain about their eligibility, she added.

“They don’t want to be wrong, because the consequences are so very high. I believe that that is by design. I believe that the folks who passed these laws knew exactly what they were doing,” Peréz said.

But state House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, and other supporters of the law say it properly carries out the constitutional amendment, which was reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court before it went on the November ballot.

Oliva said it is “crystal clear” that the Supreme Court approved the language of the amendment “with a requirement to pay back fines and make crime victims whole.”

“Voters voted to give felons a second chance, but they didn't vote to give them a free pass from accountability and payment of debt to society,” Oliva said in a text Monday. “We are confident the court will see the depths to which the Florida Supreme Court went to firmly establish that things like paying fines are a large part of completing your sentence." 

Many people who have been released from jail or prison are indigent and will be permanently unable to pay the fees, the lawsuit argues. According to a report compiled from data gathered by Florida clerks of courts cited in the lawsuit, county clerks collected about 20 percent of court-imposed fees and fines in 2018.

The law, however, includes provisions allowing third parties to waive outstanding debts, and felons who are unable to pay can ask judges to convert their financial obligations to community service.

But those avenues are also problematic, the lawsuit alleges.  For example, financial obligations resulting from federal or out-of-state cases can’t be resolved through Florida courts.

And third-party payment recipients --- including collection agencies, insurance companies and private individuals --- “have absolute discretion to grant or deny a person’s request” to have their financial obligations terminated “for any reason, no reason, or based on personal whims,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.

While the battle is being waged in court, advocates of the amendment are holding “community events” to help felons register to vote, raising money to help them pay off financial obligations, and meeting with judges, supervisors of elections and others with the goal of creating processes that will make it easier --- and faster --- to pay off debts and get registered.

“We’re excited to work with local officials to help expedite the completion of sentences for returning citizens who want to move on with their lives. We’re also working to help people directly complete their sentences, as well as work through the clemency process, to help those folks who currently are not eligible,” said Volz, treasurer of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The impact of the amendment hasn’t been diminished by the legislation to carry it out, he added.

“A lifetime ban for people with felony convictions is gone,” Volz said.