What does the 2020 Election look like for people previously convicted of a felony in Florida?
With the 2020 election ever-more-closely approaching, voter registration and disenfranchisement issues have been brought into the spotlight. Specifically in Florida, the reestablishment of voting rights for people who have previously been convicted of a felony has come into question as citizens get ready to cast their ballots.
Felon disenfranchisement has applied to all people convicted of felonies in Florida, no matter the type of crime they committed, ever since the founding of the state Constitution. In the U.S., felony disenfranchisement is the revocation of someone’s right to vote due to a conviction of a felony criminal offense.
The first big change to Florida’s law came in 2007, when felons were able to appear before a Parole Committee who would determine whether or not their right to vote would be reinstated.
In 2018, an overwhelming number of Floridians voted for Amendment 4 (The Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative), a ballot initiative that automatically restored voting rights to most people convicted of a felony upon completion of all terms of their sentence. This amendment put an end to the lifetime ban from the polls for people who previously had lost all their voting rights. This amendment applied to almost all people convicted of felonies, except those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses.
The passing of the amendment seemed like a success for the 1.4 million people who would now be added to the voting pool in Florida. The amendment was bipartisan, and it would help change the fact that more than one in five black Floridans were ineligible to vote due to a criminal conviction.
The amendment was considered a win. People thought it solved the issue of felon disenfranchisement.
But there was a big problem.
People previously convicted of felonies quickly ran into problems when they tried to exercise their civic duty. After passing the amendment, the Florida state legislature passed an additional law. The law required people previously convicted of a felony to pay all fees and retributions to the courts related to their convictions -- before they could cast a single ballot.
While this seems like a modern day poll tax (already abolished by the 24th Amendment), the law was made legal due to a single caveat. The courts which convicted people were given the power to modify a person’s criminal sentence, in order to waive or lower the fees due.
In addition to the fact that many people convicted of a felony cannot afford to pay the restitution fees they owe, Florida does not retain any sort of system that keeps track of felons’ debts. A majority of people convicted of a felony do not know how much money they owe, and therefore have a harder time trying to determine how much they need to pay.
Because of the exceptions to the new law, there have been some issues already circulating in court in order to dissolve these problems before the 2020 election.
On Feb. 19, an United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit heard a case brought by 17 indigent ex-felons who all argued that their right to vote should not be decided by their financial stability nor financial status. The court ruled that the state has a right to collect the fees owed by people, but that those who cannot afford them cannot be disenfranchised. The case went to a trial court in April to decide whether or not this law could be labeled a poll tax, which would make it unconstitutional.
“‘We conclude that the phrase, when read and understood in context, plainly refers to obligations and includes ‘all’ — not some — LFOs [legal financial obligations] imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt,’ the Justices wrote. However, the Court’s opinion does not affect the separate federal lawsuit challenging SB 7066, which is scheduled to go to trial in April,” according to the Sentencing Project.
“Florida cannot violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections,” said a joint statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Brennan Center for Justice, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund shared by the Sentencing Project. “The right to vote cannot be contingent on the ability to pay. We will continue fighting in federal court for our clients and the hundreds of thousands of Floridians’ voting rights that SB7066 seeks to unconstitutionally and permanently eliminate.”
At the April trial, a judge ruled the law requiring people previously convicted of felonies to pay all fees and retributions before they could vote was unconstitutional. In short, the judge agreed that the fees were a modern-day poll tax for Floridians.
But now, there is a new problem. Gov. DeSantis wants to bring the poll tax back.
DeSantis plans to appeal the Amendment 4 ruling that allows ex felons to vote, the Orlando Sentinel reported May 26.
DeSantis' announcement came only 2 days after US District Court Judge Robert Hinkle ruled Florida's 2019 law to install Amendment 4 "was unconstitutional because it required felons to pay restitution, fines and fees before being able to vote," according to the Orlando Sentinel. Hinkle called the law a "pay-to-vote system" and he also noted the difficulty in finding out how much a felon might owe.
What DeSantis' appeal will do is send the decision to the 11th Circuit - the Atlanta-based appellate court - for a ruling. His goal is to reverse Judge Hinkle's decision which struck down the law requiring fines and fees to be payed by people previously convicted of felonies in order to regain the right to vote.
If DeSantis is successful in getting the decision appealed, people previously convicted of a felony would need to find a way to track how much money they owe the court and schedule an appearance to see if their fees could be waived. If not, then people would need to pay all the court fees in order to vote in both the primary and general election.
Do you think a modern-day poll tax should be allowed in Florida?
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