How Republicans Gutted Voting Restoration for Formerly Incarcerated Floridians

By Shani Saxon Aug 06, 2020

During the 2018 midterm elections, 64.5 percent of Floridians voted in favor of passing the Voting Restoration Amendment, also known as Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to over a million formerly incarcerated people. In spite of that overwhelming victory, tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated people remain disenfranchised, The Guardian reports. 

As Colorlines reported in March 2019, Florida’s House and Senate, which are both controlled by Republicans, introduced “a bill that would require formerly incarcerated Florida residents to pay fines before they can have their voting rights restored.” Detractors said the bill would “unfairly punish those who are unable to pay and undermine the central objective of the amendment: ending permanent disenfranchisement,” according to The New York Times

Reports The Guardian:

The promise of amendment 4 remains largely unfulfilled because Republicans in Florida moved aggressively to gut it. They passed a law that put insurmountable hurdles in front of those with felony convictions and required them to navigate a byzantine bureaucracy to get their voting rights back (one county official testified in May that records from crimes decades ago had been kept on index cards in shoeboxes). As of late May, Florida’s top election official had tens of thousands of pending registrations from people with felony convictions, but had yet to fully review a single one.

rnIn March, Colorlines spoke with Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and the person responsible for spearheading Amendment 4. He said his organization was working hard to navigate the roadblocks Republicans put in place in order to limit the reach of the Voting Rights Amendment. “From the very beginning we told people that where other people see obstacles, we see opportunities,” Meade said. “…We started a crowdsource funding campaign to raise money to actually help people pay off fines and fees. We have raised over half a million dollars and are looking to raise a lot more to help people so that they can register to vote.”

The Guardian reports that the Florida legislature is solely using fees and fines as a tactic for voter suppression, and they don’t actually expect to receive the money they’re demanding:

In Florida, courts depend on fees to operate and those who interact with the system can get tagged with a dizzying array of costs. The state doesn’t really expect to ever collect the money: between 2013 and 2018, courts levied $1bn in felony fines, but Florida clerks of court only reported collecting an average of 19% of the costs each year, according to an analysis by the Miami radio station WLRN.

The legislature deliberately chose to ignore the reality that many people would be unable to repay the costs that accumulate in court, said Ashley Thomas, Florida state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy group that closely tracks the costs of the criminal justice system.

While 30 states require convicted felons to repay court debts before they can vote again, there was a provision in Grant’s bill that was particularly cruel. It blocked people from voting even in cases where their debts had been converted to a civil lien, a practice judges frequently use when someone cannot pay. If someone has completed prison, parole and probation and all they still owe is a civil lien, they are generally considered done with their criminal sentence, said Stanford Blake, a retired judge from Miami.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill proposal into law in June 2019, sparking a “slew of lawsuits” from Civil rights groups against the Florida legislature, The Guardian reports.  They argued that the state “had essentially created a poll tax, an outlawed device long used to block African Americans from the polls,” according to The Guardian. 

One major problem, according to The Guardian, is that there is “no centralized place where someone can look up how much money they owe and how much money they have paid towards overcoming the debt.” 

“It’s a nightmare of their own making,” said Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), while speaking to The Guardian. 

Reports The Guardian:

As of late May, the division of elections – responsible for verifying which people with felony convictions can vote – had 85,000 registrations to review. And just months ahead of the election, it hadn’t completed review of a single one. Maria Matthews, the head of the division, said the state only had the capacity to review 57 registrations a day. In testimony earlier this year, she struggled to explain the processes the state was using to implement the law.

There was a moment of hope in late May when US district judge Robert Hinkle “struck down the Republican restrictions on amendment 4,” The Guardian reports. However, Florida lawyers quickly appealed the judge’s ruling to the US court of appeals for the 11th circuit. They requested that Hinkle’s order be paused while the appeal was pending, and the court agreed without explanation, The Guardian reports. 

According to The Guardian:

In July, the plaintiffs made an emergency request to the US supreme court, asking them to let Hinkle’s ruling go into effect ahead of Florida’s fast approaching 18 August primary. The supreme court declined to do so, and like the 11th circuit, offered no explanation for its reasoning. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the supreme court’s decision meant that Florida could block people from voting “simply because they are poor."

In spite of the setbacks, Meade remained confident in his fight while speaking to Colorlines. “I know that it’s not the smartest, it’s not the strongest that are gonna bring about change,” he said. “It’s gonna be the people that are suffering and experiencing that pain who are going to do it. It’s not just about voting. It’s also about a lot of these issues in criminal justice or the economic issues that impact communities of color. The people who are actually going to change those conditions are the people who were actually ostracized.”