In November, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a ballot initiative to automatically restore voting rights to 1.4 million people with felony convictions. Now state lawmakers are considering legislation that would make restoration of voting rights contingent on a person’s ability to pay all court fines and fees.
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.
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.
A Step Backwards
State legislators are now working to limit that historic move, arguing that additional legislation is required to clarify Amendment 4.
Mother Jones reports that a House subcommittee on Tuesday approved a bill that would bar people with felony records from voting until they have paid all court fines and fees, including “any cost of supervision” like parole, even if the fines and fees were not part of the original sentence.
Millions of American families — disproportionately poor and minority families — are already struggling to pay fees imposed by the criminal justice system, often forgoing basic necessities because failing to pay supervision fees and other costs can lead to their loved ones being returned to jail or prison. A recent study found that about 113 million American adults have an immediate family member who is formerly or currently incarcerated. As of 2011, the total amount of criminal justice debt owed by Americans amounted to around $50 billion.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which helped pass Amendment 4, described bill 19-03 as an “unconstitutional overreach” that “would restrict the number of people who would otherwise be eligible to vote.”
Others argue the bill would unfairly burden low-income people who cannot afford to repay all their fines and fees. Rep. Adam Hattersley (D-Riverview) told the Tampa Bay Times, “It’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax.”
As the bill moves on to broader consideration in the legislature, voting rights advocates have vowed to “fight any measure that denies people their constitutional rights.”