With the general election just weeks away, Florida’s ex-felons may well be the swing votes that never materialize, said activists. Until yesterday’s Oct. 5 deadline to register, they worked overtime to get that population to the polls.
Prior to the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018, people who had been convicted of a felony permanently lost their right to vote. The law restored those rights, though it excluded those convicted of murder or rape, following the completion of their sentences.
Following the passage of Amendment 4, 85,000 ex-felons registered to vote. But a slew of court decisions has put those rights and hundreds of thousands of others in limbo.
“Making Florida voters pay to vote — it’s essentially a poll tax and we should be well beyond that in our society by now,” said Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Blacks are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites; Black women are twice as likely to be jailed as White women.
Ruban Roberts, president of the NAACP Miami-Dade branch, said he believes the current rulings are part of a Republican strategy for voter suppression.
“When you have 1.5 million voters who are eligible to enter the polls again, we knew there was going to be voter suppression because those people who are eligible to vote are not likely to vote for the parties in power right now,” said Roberts.
As of August, more than 79% of Florida’s Black voters are Democrats, compared to 37% for the state overall.
Repeated calls to state and Miami-Dade County Republican officials were not returned.
Controversy erupted almost immediately after the passage of Amendment 4, with conservative lawmakers arguing that “completion of the sentence” not only included prison, parole and probation, but also the repayment of any fines and fees related to the case. In July 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed this requirement, titled SB 7066, into law.
In response, the Brennan Center of Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center and other law organizations filed a series of suits that claimed this was unconstitutional. But in January, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of the law.
This, in turn, was appealed to the 11th District Court of Appeals in Atlanta. That court, in a 6-to-4 decision on Sept. 11, upheld the Florida Supreme Court’s decision.
Brigham said the decision was essentially a slap in the face to hundreds of thousands of people who thought they had regained a constitutional right.
“This has been a complicated process made much more confusing by the twists and turns as we have moved through the court systems which could have been avoided altogether if the legislature had not passed SB 7066 and have the governor not signed it,” said Brigham. “Clearly the state of Florida is going against the will of the people which is really outrageous.”
Organizations such as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and League of Women Voters of Florida have committed to helping the returning citizens pay their financial obligations.
“We are working with lawyers to help returning citizens get trained on how they can pay their fines if they owe money or help them find out if they do if they don’t know. We are also partnered with ACLU Florida to send out 80,000 postcards to returning citizens who to the best of our knowledge don’t owe fines and fees to notify them to register to vote,” said Brigham.
And shortly after the appellate court’s decision, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg raised more than $16 million to help ex-felons register to vote in Florida. The FRRC states the money has already paid off fines and fees for 32,000 convicted felons.
But Florida’s Republican attorney general, Ashley Moody has called for an investigation, claiming that the donations could be considered bribes.
Still, Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos J. Martinez said it is a good thing that donors such as Bloomberg have stepped up to help poor people pay their financial debts to the courts.
“It’s a great thing for the state for Florida because we are now getting voters who are able to vote and also a transfer of money into the court systems of Florida when we are getting budget cuts at 6%,” said Martinez. “It’s none of the government’s business how they obtain the money if it is done legally, we should be welcoming the donations not investigating them.”
In parts of South Florida, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, prosecutors have made it easier for ex-felons to clear any outstanding obligations.
According to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s website, which is similar to the other counties: “Individuals who can afford to pay all or some of their fines should do so. However, those who are indigent or do not have the ability to pay their fines in full may request a modification of their sentence by filing a motion with the Court. Upon proper request, the Court may modify the sentence and deem it completed for purposes of allowing the movant to vote. All other financial obligations remain in place and the Clerk of Courts may enforce them in the usual manner.”
“The rules in Miami-Dade are complex because the rules for the state of Florida are complex,” said Martinez. “We have hired a group of lawyers to help teach returning citizens about their options.”