GOP, Democrats Clash in the Florida Legislature Over Implementing Voting Rights for Ex-Felons

Democrats continue to blast Florida Republicans over the bill filed to implement Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to most ex-felons.

More than 64 percent of Floridians approved the measure in November. The amendment restores voting rights to most ex-felons but there is a dispute over the language.

“This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” the amendment reads.

It’s that “all terms” phrase that has become the battleground on Amendment 4. Senate Bill 7086, backed by the GOP majority, would force felons to pay their fines and restitution before being allowed to vote again. Now the fight is on to define what exactly what completing all terms of a sentence means.

Republicans are stressing that language with state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, weighing on what voters approved in November.

“The people who proposed the amendment on their website clearly states that it includes restitution,” said Brandes in January as the bill implementing Amendment 4 was being workshopped.

“These are questions we need to understand,” Brandes said. “I think there is a lot of desire to get this right….clearly, we want to maximize people’s opportunity to vote – but we also need to very clearly follow the voters’ intent.”

Brandes and other Republicans in the Legislature note that University of Florida’s Law School Dean Emeritus Jon Mills told the Florida Supreme Court that Amendment 4 would allow felons to vote once they finished their entire sentence, including paying fines.

Democrats are up in arms though, calling the Senate bill a “poll tax.”

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo is trying to pin the blame on Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“This bill is an unconstitutional poll tax that recalls the darkest moments of our state’s history and let’s not forget that the roots of today’s crisis lie with Governor Ron DeSantis’ refusal in December to implement Amendment Four,” she insisted.

“Instead of leading, DeSantis has punted this issue to the legislature and has empowered Republican legislators to try to violate the constitution by instituting a new poll tax in Florida,” Rizzo added. “The actions of Governor DeSantis and Republican legislators are a national embarrassment and a moral abomination.”

Former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum is now tasked with registering a million new voters in advance of the 2020 elections. He understands that effort will be hindered if thousands of former felons are prevented from registering because they owe fines.

“Rather than respect Floridians’ decision to end 150 years of voter suppression, these lawmakers are unconstitutionally excluding new crimes from Amendment 4, and are writing discriminatory ‘cash register justice’ even more deeply into our laws,” Gillum said. “Florida leads the nation in using fees and fines to fund its criminal justice system — trapping offenders in a cycle of poverty, debt, and new offenses. With today’s action, the committee ties a former felon’s restoration of rights to this flawed and predatory system. This isn’t just an attempt to gut Amendment 4, but an attempt to ensure former offenders remain on the outskirts of our society.

“To those lawmakers who are advancing this misguided bill: you may not respect the wishes of the people, but this is a democracy — and you must follow them. We the people will make sure of it,” Gillum added.

As the Legislature grapples with implementing Amendment 4,  they are mulling over which fines will be included. When Gillum slammed “cash register justice,” he was referring to fines and costs that are designed to defray the costs of the justice system from taxpayers and onto defendants. The Senate bill would ensure fines instituted by the court system can be excluded as felons look to get their voting rights back but those fines would have to be converted to a civil lien. Restitution to victims must still be paid.  In the House’s proposal implementing Amendment 4, all fines must be paid before an ex-felon can vote

There is also a fight over what constitutes murder. The Senate bill excludes murderers and those who attempted murder from regaining their voting rights. Democrats are insisting the Republican senators are attempting an end-run around what voters approved by preventing those convicted of attempted murder from regaining their voting rights.

One thing is certain. If the Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature are able to agree on how to implement Amendment 4 and DeSantis signs it into law, this battle will end up in court.

Reach Mike Synan at Mike.Synan@floridadaily.com.

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