Controversial felons’ rights bill goes to DeSantis
By Dara Kam
News Service of Florida
With two men who’ve become the faces of Amendment 4 watching from the gallery, Florida lawmakers passed a controversial measure that would require repayment of financial obligations before felons’ voting rights could be restored.
The Republican-dominated House passed the bill in a party-line vote on the last full day of the 2019 legislative session. That came after the Senate approved the plan in a party-line vote the night before.
The legislation is aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment that granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The proposal, which appeared on the November ballot as Amendment 4, excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
But Democrats and many other Amendment 4 supporters say the legislation is too restrictive and would block people from being able to vote.
Desmond Meade and Neil Volz, who work for a political committee that propelled the amendment to victory in November, called the measure “disheartening” and “disappointing.”
The high-profile bill has been mired in drama throughout the 60-day legislative session.
One of the most controversial provisions in the bill deals with financial obligations that felons would be required to fulfill before their voting rights are restored.
Under the proposal headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis, felons would have to repay all restitution and would also have to pay all fees and fines ordered by courts, not including “any fines, fees, or costs that accrue after the date the obligation is ordered as part of the sentence.”
The financial obligations would be considered completed if they are paid in full, if a victim or the court “forgives” the restitution, or if a judge allows felons to serve community service in lieu of payment.
But Black lawmakers have taken umbrage at the linkage between money, voting and a person’s felony status, saying it is a reminder of Florida’s ugly Jim Crow-era policies aimed at keeping Blacks from the ballot box.
Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Black Democrat from Orlando, urged her colleagues to vote down the measure, which she called “cash-register justice.”
“What you’re being asked to do here today is wrong. It’s wrong like poll taxes were wrong … and it continues Florida’s pattern of disenfranchising a significant portion of the population. It’s wrong,” she said before the House’s 67-42 vote in favor of the measure (SB 7066).
Rep. Dotie Joseph, a North Miami Democrat who is Black, gave a lengthy history of racially motivated voting laws and their impact. The Florida electorate “spoke loud and clear” by supporting Amendment 4, Joseph, a lawyer, argued.
“We wanted everyone to vote, after they’ve paid their time. Not paid their money. Paid their time. That part of the ballot language was crystal clear,” she said.
Restoring felons’ rights has long been a controversial political and legal issue in Florida, with the debate ramping up during the past eight years under former Gov. Rick Scott. That controversy was the impetus for the ballot initiative.
Meade, a onetime homeless felon who was a key figure in a political committee behind the amendment, and Volz, a felon who is the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, maintain that the amendment is self-executing and didn’t need legislative action.
Even so, for weeks they worked behind the scenes with Republicans and Democrats to craft a proposal they said they hoped would be closer to the amendment’s intent.
“Amendment 4 is the law. What Amendment 4 did, more than anything else, is that it removed a lifetime felon ban that Florida has had in place for over 150 years. Nothing that the Legislature has done has removed that victory. That victory remains intact,” Meade, accompanied by his wife, Sheena, and Volz, told reporters after Friday’s House vote.
Supporters of Amendment 4 estimate it could impact up to 1.4 million felons in Florida, but Meade said the legislation could cut that number in half.
His focus now is on convincing DeSantis to veto the measure, a proposition that seems unlikely.
The Senate added the Amendment 4 implementation language to an elections package last Thursday evening, following days of negotiations between Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa.
The Senate had pushed for a plan that would have only required felons to pay restitution in full — not fees or fines — to get their voting rights restored. But Brandes conceded last Thursday that language including several “pathways” for felons to meet their financial obligations was the best he could get from the House.
After Democrats harshly lambasted the bill, Grant said he was “dumbfounded” by the critique.
Grant pointed out he had made significant concessions “in only one direction: to provide greater clarity, transparency and accuracy for the class of people covered by Amendment 4.”
The legislation provides direction for state and local elections officials, something they requested, when handling voter-registration applications from felons, Grant said.
The worst outcome for people affected by the amendment would be “an undescribed, undefined process by a bunch of bureaucrats” who aren’t elected, he added.
“Desmond, I see you up there,” Grant said, pointing to Meade in the House gallery, adding that the bill was lawmakers’ first step in carrying out the amendment. “This isn’t the end of a story about redemption and restoration and second chances.”
Meade said he was grateful to Brandes and Grant for their efforts, but he said the late maneuvering resulted in legislation that did a disservice to Amendment 4, to 1.4 million Floridians and to democracy.
“It was a disappointment when politicians got involved. Our elected officials had over 20-plus years to deal with this issue, and they did not pick the ball up. They walked off the playing field. And what we as citizens and returning citizens did is; we picked that ball up and we got it across the finish line. After we got it across, here come elected officials to now try to pick the ball back up. Today, they fumbled,” he said.