Amendment 4 passed in Florida at the end of 2018 with 64 percent of the vote, restoring the right to vote for 1.4 million ex-felons. But in May of last year, the state legislature, in implementing the ballot measure, passed a bill that restricts voting rights restoration to felons who pay off all outstanding restitution, fines and court fees.
In October, a federal judge ruled that the state could require felons who could afford conviction-related financial obligations to pay up, but could not make a law blocking those who cannot pay from voting. Gov. Ron Desantis asked the Florida Supreme Court for an opinion on the pay-to-play legislation and began speaking of voting as a "privilege."
Last week, more than a year since the amendment first passed, the state's high court ruled that felons who owed money were ineligible to vote. Incidentally, 2020 is also a presidential election year.
Florida sure is full of roller coasters. Unlike those in the theme parks, this one is less fun for felons who've served their sentences but are now unsure whether they can register to vote or not.
Amid the precariousness, state attorneys for Hillsborough, Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, some of Florida's most populous counties, created "rocket dockets" that would find and waive felon fees, except for victim restitution. County judges replace fines with community service, clearing ex-felons' debt and fast-tracking their ability to vote.
But there's been no such movement in Orange and Osceola counties. Both have been registering anyone who believes they are eligible to vote since Jan. 2019, months after the amendment passed.
According to both Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington and Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, there haven't been many questions or much confusion among the former felons who have registered to vote in these counties. Both say they haven't had any instances that stand out or required the involvement of the Orange and Osceola Office of the State Attorney.
Since the amendment passed, says Arrington, they've added a new box on the registration form. Next to the box to check if you are not a felon, there's now a box for felons whose rights have been restored.
Also, she says, "When you register, there is an oath at the bottom of the application." By signing, the voter swears under penalty of perjury that all the information on the form is truthful.
And therein lies the trouble. With the exact terms of the amendment being batted around in the air, some felons have opted to avoid registering to vote for fear of somehow unintentionally committing perjury once the amendment is finalized.
As for the latest swerve, the Florida Supreme Court ruling on Jan. 16 backing the DeSantis-signed legislation (SB 7066) barring felons with outstanding fees and restitution from the vote, Cowles says it's one of many developments still to come, and that he does not plan on shifting his office's operations until the precise understanding of Amendment 4 is settled. He notes that a federal court will rule on the law in April.
DeSantis declared in December that, if the state court sides with him, he would start reviewing the cases of former felons to see if they owe money. This came after U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction in October, pausing the enactment of legislation forcing former felons to pay debts, and requiring the state to create protocol for registering people who cannot pay fees. Three months later, the state has yet to establish any such process.
New York-based law and policy institute the Brennan Center for Justice shared that 44 percent of the ex-felons who registered to vote from January to March 2019 identified as Black, though Black people only make up about 13 percent of Florida's population. Because the amendment and its exact parameters disproportionately impact Black people, the ACLU has likened laws requiring ex-felons pay fees before voting to the unconstitutional, Jim Crow-era, Black-vote suppressing poll tax.
Hinkle also said he will wait on making a final call on the constitutionality of requiring people to pay fees before voting until the federal trial in April.
"There's a long way till the end," Cowles says, adding that he is not aware of any database for looking up felon debt or any other checkmarks for voter reinstatement. "Supervisors are still saying to individuals, 'If you believe you are eligible to vote, you can register.'"
– This story appears in the Jan. 22, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.