Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a controversial law last week making it more difficult—and in some cases, potentially impossible—for newly eligible voters to regain their right to vote.
The Republican governor’s stamp of approval comes seven months after Floridians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment expanding access to the ballot box to more than a million people. It was the largest expansion of voting rights in the country since the passage of the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Sixty-four percent of voters backed the referendum.
It appears the historic victory was short-lived.
The controversial law, which the Republican-controlled state legislature passed in May along party lines, requires anyone formerly convicted of a felony to pay restitution, court-mandated fines, and other associated fees prior to regaining their voting eligibility.
Republicans who supported the measure argued that financial obligations are part and parcel of a person's sentence, and should be resolved prior to full voting rights restoration. Critics have likened the law to a "poll tax" and lament that it represents a clear reversal from the original intent of the amendment—to abolish the state’s Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement law that made Florida one of only four states to permanently strip someone’s right to vote due to a felony conviction. Prior to the amendment’s passage, one in 10 Floridians were disenfranchised, including one in five African Americans.
Listen to the special bonus episode discussing felony disenfranchisement in Florida
Other than in cases of sexual crimes and murder, the voter-approved amendment restored voting rights to anyone with a felony record who satisfied all sentencing requirements, including parole and probation.
The American Civil Liberties Union, among other organizations, immediately filed suit Friday evening. Blasting it as a violation of the 1st, 14th, 15th and 24th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the suit claims the law makes voting an earned privilege based upon someone’s ability to pay off existing court debts.
“The law will have a massive disenfranchising effect, and result in sustained, and likely permanent disenfranchisement for individuals without means,” the complaint, filed on behalf of 10 people with a felony record, argues.
Listen to "THE REAL VOTER FRAUD: Felony Disenfranchisement’s Civil Death Sentence"
Julie Ebenstein, staff attorney at the ACLU Voting Rights Project, told News Beat the new law “discriminates on the basis of wealth” in such a way that some people may never be able to pay their restitution.
“There's in fact, billions of dollars of debt owed in the state of Florida that the court clerks don't even expect to be able to recoup because oftentimes the fees are levied against people who can't afford to pay them,” she said in a special podcast episode. “But what the law...does is it says until somebody can afford to pay off these deaths, hundreds, thousands, in some cases, millions of dollars in restitution, they can't have their voting rights restored.”
Ebenstein said the legislation “undermines” Amendment 4—the enfranchisement referendum. The irony isn’t lost on her.
“I think that it’s really telling that voters voted for voting,” she said. “And it sounds like a funny way to say it, but voters have consistently, in Florida and other states, wanted to expand access to the ballot, wanted to expand the electorate, and have wanted to make elections fair.”
It’s unclear how many of the 1.4 million assumed newly eligible voters would be affected, but the ACLU estimates it to be in the “hundreds of thousands,” according to Ebenstein. The uncertainty is largely blamed on the lack of centralized database housing court fines and fees.
The amendment is working as it was intended, according to the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, which conducted its own analysis covering the first three months of 2019. Compared to prior odd years, there were nearly 100 times more voting registrants as a result of Amendment 4. The majority (44 percent) are African American and the average income of all who've registered is $15,000, according to the report.
Nationwide, more than 6 million Americans are stripped of their voting rights due to Jim Crow-era felony disenfranchisement laws. Prior to Amendment 4, upwards of 1.7 million Floridians were ineligible. Florida was one of four states to permanently bar such voters, along with Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky.
The only redress for affected Floridians was appealing to the state’s Executive Clemency Board. Under the leadership of former Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, less than 5,000 people had their rights restored. That’s in stark contrast to the 155,000-plus made eligible under his predecessor, Charlie Christ, a Democrat.
Under Scott, the clemency board was not without controversy.
A federal U.S. District Court judge said the process by which the board evaluated disenfranchisement cases was akin to locking away someone’s voting rights and swallowing the key. The judge’s order to overhaul the system was overturned by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, leaving the current system in place.
In the suit filed on Friday, lawyers for at least 10 Florida residents said the new law “creates two classes of returning citizens: those who are wealthy enough to vote and those who cannot afford to.”
Underscoring how unlikely it is that those affected will ever have the means to satisfy restitution, one of the plaintiffs in the suit who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit insurance and wire fraud in 2010 has been making monthly payments toward a fine her attorneys admit she’ll never pay off.
The amount? $59 million.