ACLU Lawyer Insists Florida Law Allowing Felons To Vote Is A Poll Tax Not Created By The Amendment

Aug 30, 2019

In this, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018 photo, people gather around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami. Amendment 4, asks voters to restore the voting rights of people with past felony convictions. More than 1.5 million adults in Florida are ineligible to vote because they have felony convictions.
Credit Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the constitutionality of a law that allows certain felons to vote but requires them to pay any fees associated with their sentence first. Critics call the new rule a poll tax. But the bill’s author argues he simply followed the language voters approved in a 2018 amendment. Now the Judge presiding over the case is questioning whether the amendment itself violates the constitution. I spoke with ACLU lawyer Julie Ebenstein to get the groups' view.

“We certainly think amendment 4 is constitutional we’ve never claimed amendment 4 is unconstitutional, we’re not challenging the constitutionality of amendment 4. The judge in a discovery hearing simply asked for briefing on a particular issue what he would do and how he would order relief in one scenario,” explained Ebenstein.  “So, I think what’s clear is the bill we are challenging - legislation that we're challenging, 7066 - is such a departure and such a modification of amendment 4.”

Tampa Bay Republican Representative Jamie Grant sponsored the bill. He says he followed exactly what an amendment passed by voters said. But, Ebenstein thinks the financial obligations weren’t part of the amendment. She says they were added on by the legislature.

The legislation that was passed in May [and] signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in June. It has a complex array of definitions and requirements for financial obligations that people have to satisfy before they can their right to vote restored,” explained Ebenstein. “So what we’re challenging is the requirement that people have to satisfy those financial obligations before they can restore their fundamental right to vote.”

Grants reason for adding fees, fines, and restitution as part of the completion of the sentence is because the amendment included parole and probation something he says is inherently a financial obligation, Ebenstein disagrees.

“The idea that parole or probation, having your life under the supervision of the Department of Corrections or another state agency, the idea that that is really a financial obligation is really outrageous,” said Ebenstein.

Ebenstein says no references to financial obligations were included when activists crafted the amendment – something she believes was don’t intentionally.

“I think if you look at the amendment text you won’t find fees, you won’t find fines, you won’t find court costs, you won’t find restitution, you won’t find financial obligations. You will find nothing in the amendment that says your voting rights depend on your wealth,” said Ebenstein.

Grant says when Jon Mills an attorney for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition defined the completion of a sentence to the Florida Supreme Court during the amendment’s Advisory Hearing Mills said it includes full payment of any fines.

But Ebenstein says creating a definition was not the point of the meeting therefore she says Grant’s argument isn’t valid.

“That hearing was only on the single-subject rule which means to make sure that the language of amendment 4 was clear,” said Ebenstein.

Meanwhile, Ebenstein says people across the state are waiting to find out whether they’ll be allowed to vote in the next election.

“One of our clients are 62 years old she’s never been qualified to vote. And she was thrilled on January 8th that meant a lot to her. So to have that withdrawn by legislators in May and then signed by the Governor in June I think was heartbreaking for a lot of Floridians.”