Remember in November when Floridans took to the polls, channelled Spike Lee, and Did the Right Thing by voting “yes” on Amendment 4?
For those who can’t recall the fine details of the citizen-proposed ballot initiative, it reinstated the voting rights for people with felony convictions—excluding murder or sexual offenses—upon completion of their sentences.
And considering that prior to Election Day, 1.6 million residents were denied the right to vote—which included 20 percent of all black residents within the state—it was kind of a big deal.
The argument could even be made that would-be Florida Governor Andrew Gillum was an Amendment 4 away from being elected into office.
But alas, because fairytale endings are reserved for Disney movies, Republicans in Florida have unleashed an insidious plan to restrict the voting rights of the same felons who just had them restored in November. No, really.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, a bill was passed on Tuesday that will require that court fines, fees and other “financial obligations” such as civil court judgments must be paid in full in order for voting rights to be fully restored. Previously former felons were only required to pay back restitution to their victim prior to applying to have their rights restored.
“It’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” Democratic Rep. Adam Hattersley told the Tampa Bay Times.
“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” countered Republican committee chair Jamie Grant. “All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following the testimony of what was presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence.”
Of particular note, the language in the amendment—which officially went into effect on Jan. 8—explicitly states that “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of [a] sentence, including parole or probation.”
So fines, fees and obligations can be “arbitrarily added well after a judge’s official sentencing,” says Neil Volz, political director of the rights commission.
The bill also expands how felony sexual offenses and murder are defined—the two crimes that exclude former felons from having their voting rights restored.
While there had been discussions about expanding the definition of murder to include attempted murder and manslaughter, in the end the bill only lists first- and second-degree murder as exceptions.
But the bill does add dozens of sex-related offenses to the list of crimes that bar felons from automatically getting voting rights back, including trafficking and locating an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school.
The bill also would require the departments of State and Corrections to share information on a voter’s or potential voter’s felony history and eligibility.
If this all sounds like some convenient meddling to purposely derail the upcoming 2020 election, it’s because it is. Which ACLU political director Kirk Bailey was quick to point out.
The bill “is an affront to Florida voters,” he said, before deeming it “overbroad, vague, [and] thwarts the will of the people […] This is exactly what we were worried about from the beginning.”
He added, it will “inevitably prevent individuals from voting based on the size of one’s bank account.”
“To allow a government employee or financial institution to determine whether someone can or cannot vote is not a good idea,” Volz said.