TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida felons will have to pay court-ordered financial obligations if they want their voting rights restored under a bill sent to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday that would implement a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
The bill, though, caused outrage among Democrats who say Republicans are adding hurdles that don’t reflect the spirit in which voters approved allowing most felons to vote once they’ve completed their sentences. The amendment was approved with 64.5 percent of the vote and excludes murderers and sex offenders from the voting restoration rights.
“I believe Floridians are smart. I believe Floridians knew exactly what they were doing,” said Democratic Rep. Al Jacquet. “White, black, Hispanic, women, male, every Floridian understanding the value of their voice, the value of their vote. But we sit here and we begin to say, ‘Well, if you want to regain it, you should do this.’”
The ballot language on the amendment said rights would be restored after all terms of a sentence are completed. Republicans said that means court costs, restitution, fees and fines imposed by a judge. Democrats have said financial burdens shouldn’t be a barrier to voting rights restoration, especially if a judge converts them to a civil judgment.
Jacquet and other Democrats argued that the original intent of the felon voting ban was to repress the minority vote, because minorities historically have been disproportionately convicted of felonies.
“Why did we take it away in the first place? Why did we take it?” Jacquet asked. “If we determine which individuals or groups to target, we can easily sideline an entire group of voters.”
Democrats were also upset that the amendment implementation was attached at the last minute to a bill with bipartisan support that dealt with other voting issues. The Senate made those changes Thursday before approving the bill.
“I was up on the elections bill. I can’t support it now,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Gottlieb. “The spirit of the amendment was to enfranchise as many returning citizens as possible … I don’t think this product does that.”
The elections bill the amendment implementation was attached to is aimed at streamlining ballot-counting in the state’s sometimes-chaotic elections, months after tightly contested governor and U.S. Senate races prompted recounts marred by fraud accusations and malfunctioning vote machines.
It would extend the period that absentee ballots can be requested from 35 days ahead of the election to 40 days. It would also move up the deadline for requesting such ballots from 6 days ahead of the election to 10 days. Election officials would have until eight days before the election to mail out the ballots. The measure also calls for mandatory training in signature verification for election staff and requires election supervisors to contact voters “as soon as practicable” if a problem with a signature is discovered.
But the debate was dominated by the felon voting rights language when it passed on the last day to consider legislation other than the state budget.
The bill does allow other pathways for felons to have financial obligations forgiven beyond simply paying them. Among the options would be to have a victim forgive the repayment of restitution or to have a judge convert financial obligations to community service.
Republican Rep. James Grant defended the language on restoring voting rights, and angrily disputed that the motive was to suppress voting rights. Grant also said he agrees with Democrats that the amendment implementation shouldn’t have been attached to the elections bill.
“I think it’s a shame,” Grant said. “We can agree that I’m sad too.”
Associated Press reporter Ellis Rua in Miami contributed to this report.