Have Ex-Felons Had Their Rights to Vote Fully Restored in Florida?
Last year, Florida voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of Amendment 4, a ballot measure to restore the right to vote to 1.4 million ex-felons who have repaid their debts to society but never had their voting rights restored. As one of just three states in the U.S. that bans convicts from voting for life, a majority of 64.55% of voters supported Amendment 4, which does not apply to anyone convicted of murder or a sexual offense.
With the upcoming election in 2020 approaching, many of these former felons are eager to vote for what may be the first time in decades. But the recent passage of a bill requiring them to pay legal fees and fines associated with their sentences before they’re eligible to vote may once again block them from getting into the voting booth.
Just a few months after Amendment 4 passed, Gov. Ron Desantis signed Senate Bill 7066, a measure denying the vote to people with outstanding financial obligations to the court. The American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and other criminal justice groups have sued the state for passing SB 7066. The state has filed motions to dismiss these lawsuits, claiming that Amendment 4 did not clearly define what it means to complete a sentence (Amendment 4 does not mention restitution), while SB 7066 does provide a clear definition (the bill includes restitution as part of completing a sentence).
In mid-October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle paused the implementation of SB 7066, ruling that “Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution.” Currently, his ruling only applies to the small group of plaintiffs represented by the ACLU and others.
What are the issues raised by requiring felons to pay restitution before voting?
The passing of SB 7066 once again threatens the voting rights of the approximately 1.4 million felons who just regained them. Most ex-felons (80%) owe court costs that could prevent them from voting under the current law; yet, many of them have no way of knowing exactly how much they owe. Florida has no comprehensive system for tracing court-ordered fines, so a former felon could do a search of court records associated with his sentence and get varying results.
Often, these fees are unaffordable and can range anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the case. In some cases, restitution for victims may climb to millions of dollars. Awards may be collected while felons are in prison or out on parole, and their payments move through departments such as the court clerks or State Department of Corrections, meaning that it’s difficult to find out what prisoners owe at the end of their terms.
Why is it important for citizens convicted of felonies to have the right to vote?
Many people support restoring felons’ voting rights for diverse reasons. One of the main reasons voters support felon voting rights is that those who have committed felonies and paid their debts to society through imprisonment, parole, probation, or a combination of these are subject to the laws of the United States of America as prisoners and free citizens. Yet, without a vote, they remain voiceless, similar to the principle of taxation without representation. In 1958, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren wrote in Trop v. Dulles that citizenship “is not a right that expires upon misbehavior.” Like citizenship, voting is a basic civil right that many believe shouldn’t disappear over a prior wrongful act.
Allowing ex-prisoners to participate in politics could help improve the prison system. Those who understand first-hand the shortcomings of this system could vote for policies that help their fellow prisoners. These policies could speed up the process by which abusive prison practices — such as solitary confinement — come to an end. As politicians look to reform our criminal justice system, allowing prisoners to vote could help them identify the most blatant issues needing solutions, leading to prisons that run more humanely.
Fight Felony Charges in Orlando and Central Florida
Unfortunately, most people facing criminal charges don’t understand the far-reaching consequences of a felony conviction until much later in their case. A felony conviction can hurt many aspects of your life and void constitutional rights such as the right to bear arms. In Florida, you could even experience complications casting a ballot.
At The Umansky Law Firm, we have been recognized by Florida Trends as a Florida Legal Elite law firm. Our team has more than 100 years of combined experience defending state and federal felony offenses in Orlando and throughout Central Florida. We understand what is at stake at this difficult time and will do our best to help you reduce the charges and potential penalties you might face. Call our office or complete this contact form to receive a free consultation.