IMPETUS BEHIND AMENDMENT 4
Desmond Meade, who was convicted of a felony and later earned a law degree after his release became involved in voting rights after he was not allowed to vote when his wife ran for the Florida legislature. In 2009, he became the head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and led a signature drive to have Amendment 4 as a ballot initiative in the 2018 Florida elections.
In 2018, nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which automatically restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million Floridians, (except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, who had completed the terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.)
FLORIDA LEGISLATIVE ACTION
Previously, Florida had been one of four remaining states that maintained the lifetime ban.
After Amendment 4 was implemented in 2019, the Florida legislature went to work. In July 2019, Republicans in Florida's state legislature enacted Senate Bill 7066, to require ex-felons to pay off existing fees before regaining their right to vote, extra step critics have compared to a poll tax. It was passed and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, a bill that clarified "all terms of sentence" to include legal financial obligations such as fines, fees, and restitution.
According to Wikipedia on May 24, 2020, a federal district court judge found that SB7066 was unconstitutional for those unable to pay, or unable to find out how much they owe.
LEGISLATION CHALLENGED IN COURT
At this point, the State appealed and the 11th Circuit agreed to hear the case and it stayed the district court’s order until it rules. Regarding the appeal, arguments were heard on August 18, 2020. On September 11, 2020, the 11th Circuit issued an order reversing the district court’s ruling, saying the requirement for felons to pay finds didn’t violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
At this point, I want to provide a little more context about the 11th Circuit. The appeals court’s ruling was written by Chief Judge William Pryor, who was named to the court by President George W. Bush and is on Trump's list of potential Supreme Court nominees. The other five judges in the 6-4 majority were appointed by Trump. All four judges in the minority were named by Democratic presidents. One more comment, when some registered voters claim their vote does not matter, they should realize the number of quite Conservative judges is being appointed by President Trump.
Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes, who helped write the law, said in the 60 minutes interview: "Well, that's not really the question in Florida. The question in Florida is, "Are you a felon?" And if you are a felon, "Have you completed all terms of your sentence?" Part of that sentence included fines, fees, and restitution. All we've said is, "They must complete all terms of their sentence," which is exactly what the voters voted for in the state of Florida.
After the 11th Circuit ruled on September 11, 2020, a few weeks later, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition paid the outstanding fines of around 32,000 felons in Florida to enable them to vote in the 2020 elections.
According to NPR, Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said that in court part of the state's defense was that if felons don't have the funds, others could always pay for them. "I'm surprised to hear now that third parties who are generously willing to pay people's outstanding legal financial obligations, suddenly they're being accused of a crime for doing exactly what the state suggested was perfectly legitimate," Ebenstein said.
So the state's defense is if felons don't have funds, others could pay their fines or restitution. But as Mike Bloomberg, LeBron James and others are raising funds to help these disenfranchised voters, Florida's attorney general is asking law enforcement agencies to open an investigation of a large contribution made by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to help pay the fines and court fees of felons.
Interestingly, the 11th Circuit Court ruled on September 11, 2020, when the cut-off for voter registration is October 5th (less than 1 month away).
FINE AND FEE TRACKING SYSTEM CHALLENGING IN FLORIDA
According to the Palm Beach Post, Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections, testified there are 85,000 felons registered and that it could take years to determine whether they have met all their legal financial obligations. “In many cases, the state does not have the necessary information to be able to determine one way or another how much someone owes or has to pay because the information doesn’t exist,” said attorney Jonathan Diaz, counsel with the Campaign Legal Center.
For some of these former felons, they don't necessarily know how they can pay their fines, fees, and restitution. According to the 60 Minutes report, Clifford Tyson, a former felon, is now attempting to help other former felons to vote said, “This is the problem. There is no way of tracking who paid what for the last 40 years. Because each of Florida's 67 counties has its own archive of sentencing documents - this one's in Hillsborough County. With no one centralized system, records can be missing, conflicting, inaccurate, or scattered. And restitution to victims is often not tracked at all. We saw old debts handwritten on index cards; some are only available on microfiche."
I can't say Florida Republicans were deliberately involved in voter suppression but it looks rather suspect based on the timeline. A quick timeline: voters approved the referendum in 2018 to allow felons to vote once they have served the terms of their sentence which was implemented at the start of 2019. In July of that same year, the Republican Florida legislature passed a law to clarify that 'terms of their sentence' meant a felon also had to pay all fines and fees imposed as part of their sentences. The federal district judge overturned the law as unconstitutional but then it was appealed and the 11th Circuit overturned the ruling. This was done within a span of 20 months.
Did many in the Florida legislature know how the referendum was written and proposed that may provide an opportunity for the legislature to later ‘tweak’ what the referendum represents? Or were they not concerned at all about the referendum thinking it would never get the required 60 percent of the vote?
Did the Conservative Florida legislature, knowing that their bill could be upheld by a conservative 11th Circuit months before the election come into play? A 'safety net' to ensure their legislation would become permanent provided they effectively leverage the 11th Circuit.
If this new law requires felons to address all fines and fees, why would the state of Florida care who pays these fines? Shouldn't their goal be to ensure the fines and fees have been addressed so they are no longer disenfranchised?
Why does it feel like this legislature is more concerned about putting up additional steps (suppressing votes) instead of using their power and representation to help those disenfranchised voters more easily determine what additional fees or fines they need to pay in order to vote?