Returning voting rights to felons hits a snag

Last year, Floridians voted to automatically restore the voting rights of convicted felons, excluding those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault, who have served their sentence, but now a new amendment has been passed requiring all outstanding court fees and fines be paid before they will be allowed to vote.

Under the 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 last November. 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 liken it to a poll tax, saying only the wealthy will be able to pay the fines and obtain 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.”

Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored the initial Senate version of the bill, said, “I think we’re constitutionally bound to include all terms of sentence … and I think via this legislation, we are doing our constitutional obligation to define those undefined terms in the amendment.”

No one seems to know who will be in charge of overseeing the entire process. There are an estimated 1.5 million people potentially seeking to have their voting rights restored, and the backlog will be unimaginable. Sen. Perry Thurston (D) said, “Do we want one uniform system of voting where people pay their time, and they get to vote again, or do we want to just say, here we go again… Flori duh!”

The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 22-17 and the House by a vote of 71-45. It is now waiting for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature, and he has already promised to sign it.

Okeechobee County Supervisor of Elections Diane Hagan said despite predictions of overwhelming numbers turning up to have their rights restored, they only had about half a dozen come in on that first day in January. 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 this change in the legislation to have any affect on her office but did say they are expecting some changes in the application form that will reflect the new requirements.

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