Jurisprudence

Florida’s Republican Legislature Votes to Nullify Popular Ballot Initiative Enfranchising Former Felons

Various labor unions and progressive organizations protest on Capitol Hill.
Various labor unions and progressive organizations protest on Capitol Hill on Sept. 16, 2015, calling for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

In 2018, a supermajority of Floridians voted for a ballot initiative to restore former felons’ voting rights. Florida’s Republican legislature has voted to effectively nullify that vote and disenfranchise a huge swath of the state’s formerly incarcerated population once again.

On a party-line vote Thursday night, Senate Republicans pushed through a draconian bill that will compel ex-felons to pay all fines, fees, and restitution associated with their sentences before they can regain their right to vote. The Florida House of Representatives passed a similar bill in April; the two measures will soon be reconciled and sent to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign the final version.

Although some Senate Republicans initially floated a compromise that would allow ex-felons to vote if their fines were converted to civil liens, they eventually caved to the demands of their more extreme colleagues in the House. The bill that DeSantis will soon sign simply replaces one disenfranchisement scheme for another. Nearly 65 percent of voters approved Amendment 4 in November, altering the Florida Constitution to overturn a Jim Crow–era law that permanently stripped voting rights from all convicted felons. By its plain language, the amendment restored suffrage to ex-felons upon completion of their sentence “including parole or probation” (unless they committed murder or a sex offense). It should have been self-implementing, automatically giving roughly 1.4 million Floridians the right to vote when it took effect in January.

Instead of simply respecting the amendment, however, Florida Republicans insisted that they had to pass “enabling legislation.” (That includes DeSantis, who opposed the initiative.) This false claim opened the door for GOP legislators to gut Amendment 4, overriding the will of the 5,148,926 Floridians who voted to approve it just months earlier. Lawmakers added a new hurdle, absent from the law’s text, for all ex-felons who wish to vote: Before they can cast a ballot, they must pay their restitution in full as well as all fines and fees “ordered by the court as a part of the sentence” and “as a condition of any form of supervision.”

This requirement will prevent hundreds of thousands of ex-felons, and maybe even more than 1 million, from regaining the franchise. Florida is a pioneer of “cash-register justice,” charging defendants “user fees” to finance its criminal justice system and saddling them with massive fines upon conviction. These fines put most defendants in a crippling financial hole from which few ever escape. As I wrote in March, defendants must pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to fund court costs, jails, and “crime prevention” programs. The legislature sets minimum charges, but courts often have discretion to maximize them. Floridians convicted of a felony have to pay to obtain a public defender ($100 to $1,000) and to reinstate a suspended driver’s license ($60 to $500). Receive medical treatment in prison? You’re on the hook for the cost. You can pay it out of your inmate bank deposit, but maintaining banking services behind bars will cost you $6 a month.

Many felons are also ordered to pay restitution, or compensation to their victims. But in Florida, restitution doesn’t just go to individual victims of crime—it also goes to the state, which considers itself a “victim” of criminal offenses as well. Once again, the legislature sets a floor for restitution, but courts often go far beyond it. The numbers on restitution are sketchy because nobody tracks who owes what—not cities, not counties, not the state. The system is a mess. But felons are routinely ordered to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars, and some must pay millions.

And defendants’ financial obligations don’t cease once they leave prison. Subject to electronic monitoring? You’ll pay $105 a week. Undergo urinalysis? $25 each time. Do a stint at a residential drug treatment center? That’ll be $10,000. Released on probation or placed in a halfway house? $25 a day. Everyone convicted of a felony must pay at least $100, but courts can raise the fine above $1,200.

Because the state does not keep track of all these charges, no one knows exactly how many ex-felons still owe fines, fees, and restitution. But all available data suggests that the vast majority of them never pay back all this money. According to WLRN, Florida courts levied $1 billion in felony fines between 2013 and 2018—and only 19 percent of that money was paid back each year. There are more than $278 million in outstanding court fines in Miami-Dade County, and $195.8 million in Palm Beach County, which charges interest on court debt. (Private debt collectors can recover this money, with commissions of up to 40 percent of the fine.) Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers estimates that circuit criminal courts, which try most felonies, collect fines and fees at a rate of just 20.55 percent. If 79.45 percent of Florida’s ex-felons owe these debts, then Republicans’ new bill could disenfranchise 1,112,300 people.

Perhaps recognizing the startling sweep of its bill, Republicans tossed in one concession: Courts can terminate an ex-felon’s financial obligations or convert them into community service, “unless otherwise prohibited by law.” The problem with this provision is that most “financial obligations” are required by law, and it’s ambiguous which fines courts have the authority to waive. Moreover, few if any people will know how they can capitalize upon this vague new procedure to restore their civil rights. And even if they figure out how to get a motion before a court, judges may have no idea how they are supposed to rule.

There are other strange and sloppy aspects to the new measure. For instance, it creates a “work group” to implement a standardized process by which ex-felons can regain the franchise, but it leaves the details hazy. Its main job is to inform the legislature (by November 2019) how the state should identify individuals who qualify to vote under Amendment 4, meaning GOP lawmakers will get another chance to narrow the law down the road. For at least six more months, then, ex-felons’ voting rights will remain in limbo while this “work group” susses out the process. A Senate Republican who helped craft the measure estimates that this effort—which is entirely unnecessary, since the amendment should be self-executing—will cost Florida millions of dollars.

Don’t expect courts to stand in the way of this chicanery. Even though the GOP bill looks a lot like an unconstitutional poll tax, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently tolerated voter suppression laws that condition the right to vote on the ability to pay a fee. The Florida Supreme Court, meanwhile, is now dominated by conservatives who appear unlikely to safeguard Amendment 4. Civil rights advocates’ best hope for reversing the new measure is another ballot initiative. But GOP legislators are currently working to restrict citizens’ ability to amend the state constitution via popular vote, so that route may prove impossible as well.

In November, a large number of people voted for both DeSantis and Amendment 4. But by installing another Republican governor, these Floridians ensured that the amendment could never take full effect. The Republican Party believes it can only win elections by suppressing votes. And in Florida, it has perfected the art of disenfranchisement—even when an overwhelming majority of voters literally amend the constitution to protect civil rights.