Court: Florida cannot bar felons from voting

TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court ruled Florida cannot bar felons, who have met requirements, from registering to vote. On Wednesday, Feb. 19, they ruled that attempting to place limits on their voting rights would be unconstitutional. The law’s requirement punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can, noted the appeal’s court.

In November 2018, all Florida felons who have completed the terms of their sentences and who were not convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses became eligible to vote, thanks to the passage of Amendment 4.

Prior to this, a convicted felon could get his rights back, but he had to petition the governor in order to do so. With the passing of this amendment, the right to vote is automatically reinstated as soon as all conditions of the sentence are completed.

The passing of this amendment was greeted with great enthusiasm by many, who felt once a person had served his time, he should not be punished forever. Some, like Mike Hughes, got into trouble at 16 and served four years in state prison. “I know where I came from and I’m not going back,” he said. Getting into trouble as children should not ruin the rest of your life, said others.

Almost immediately, though, the new legislation hit a snag, when a new amendment was passed requiring all court fees and fines be paid before rights are restored. Under this legislation, the person desiring to regain his voting rights could either pay off the financial obligation in full, ask the court or person to which it is owed to waive the obligation or have the obligation converted to community service hours and work the debt off.

The bill came about based on the wording in Amendment 4 on the ballot in November 2018. The amendment granted a restoration of voting rights to those “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” Debate began when Republicans determined that “all terms of their sentence” would include payment of fines.

On the other hand, Democrats likened it to a poll tax, saying only the wealthy will be able to pay the fines and regain the right to vote. Republicans counter with the fact that there is an option to complete community service hours instead.

Florida is one of the few states that does not automatically restore voting rights after a felon has completed his sentence. Sen. Oscar Braynon (D) said he believes when the voters voted in November, they thought they were voting for felons to get their voting rights back immediately when they got out of prison. But Sen. Rob Bradley (R) said “the amendment did not say parole and probation and that’s it.”

Although this battle was won on Feb. 19, the war is not over, as a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state plans to ask the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the ruling, and a full trial on the issue is set for the spring.

Okeechobee County Supervisor of Elections Diane Hagan said people keep asking her how she is going to handle the whole thing, and she says she will handle it the same way she always does. When someone comes in and asks for a form, she gives it to them. They fill out the form themselves, and it would be a violation of their civil rights for her to question anything they put on that form. She does not expect the change in the legislation to have any effect on her office but did say the state is making some changes in the application form, which can be found online at the Division of Elections website under voter and voter registration.

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