Florida Governor Vows to Sign Bill Requiring People with Felony Convictions to Pay Before They Can VoteMay 13, 2019

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said last week that he will sign a bill that requires repayment of all financial obligations before a person with a felony conviction can have her voting rights restored under a state constitutional amendment passed last year.

History of Racial Injustice in Florida Voting

State laws disenfranchising people convicted of a felony proliferated during the 1860s and 1870s, especially in Southern states with the largest populations of African Americans, where lawmakers were explicit about the need to suppress the black vote.

Florida created an especially harsh felony disenfranchisement scheme, barring people from voting even after they completed their sentences. A process for getting voting rights restored was recently adopted in the state, but it required people to wait up to seven years to apply and the process itself could take years. According to the Florida Commission on Offender Review, only 3005 of more than 30,000 applicants had their voting rights restored through this system.

As a result, Florida disenfranchised more potential voters than any other state, barring more than 10 percent of all potential voters and more than 21 percent of potential black voters from the polls due to felony records. 

Last November, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a ballot initiative to automatically restore voting rights to 1.4 million people with felony convictions once they "have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation."

Because African Americans are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated, Florida voters' abolition of felony disenfranchisement (except for murder and felony sex offense convictions) was a significant step towards confronting and healing the state's history of racial injustice.

Senate Bill 7066

Republicans in the Florida Legislature proposed SB 7066 this term to limit the restoration of voting rights to people with felony convictions who paid all fees, fines, and restitution. The bill passed the legislature on May 3. 

The Florida Department of Corrections estimated that 20 percent of people under its supervision, and 40 percent of applicants for voting rights restoration, still owed restitution, the New Yorker reported.

The Brennan Center for Justice noted in a 2010 report that, since 1996, Florida had "added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants and, at the same time, eliminated most exemptions for those who cannot pay." Indeed, the report says, Florida "relies so heavily on fees to fund its courts that observers have coined a term for it – 'cash register justice.'"

Barbara Richards, whose nonprofit Project 180 has surveyed hundreds of incarcerated people about fees, fines, and restitution, told the New Yorker that the majority of people surveyed owed money, and many owed thousands of dollars. "Some people's voices will never be heard, because their fees are so high," she said. "They're overwhelming."

Opponents of SB 7066 expect to file legal challenges to the provision as violative of Amendment 4.

Kirk Bailey, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told reporters last week, "Politicians this session disregarded the will of over 5 million Florida voters who supported Amendment 4 when they passed legislation that restricts the right to vote based on who can afford to pay."