Florida Law Gives Felons Right To Vote If They Pay Back Fines and Fees

Jun 28, 2019

Felons registering to vote on the first day of registration after passage of Amendment 4.
Credit Blaise Gainey / WFSU-FM

Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill implementing 2018's Amendment 4. When voters passed the amendment it was expected that nearly 1.5 million felons would be allowed to vote. But the Republican-dominated legislature passed an implementation bill that many say changes the intent.

Rebecca Kelly-Manders founded Refire for felons, like herself. It’s designed to help people reenter into the community. She teaches basic kitchen skills and gets her students certified in sanitation so they get jobs in the hospitality industry.

Kelly-Manders says part of reentry into society is voting and that the new rules are unfair.

“I feel that people who are in power have such great amount of fear about that power being stripped away from them, that they felt they needed to change the rules of the game in the middle of it being played," said Kelly-Manders.

Some say the new rules are like a pay to play system of restoration. In order for a felon to get their rights back they must pay off all fines and fees ordered by the court after completing their sentence.

It is debtors prison. It is a way to keep a class of individuals that people with privilege and people with power consider to be less than completely out of the picture.

"It’s debtors prison. It’s a way to keep a class of individuals that people with privilege and people with power consider to be less than completely out of the picture," said Kelly-Manders.

Kelly-Manders says requiring people to pay back fines and fees before being allowed to vote, takes Florida back to the early 1800s. When a person could be imprisoned for not being able to pay debt.

She says that’s not what voters wanted when they passed the amendment.

“It was very clear that it was self-implementing. That we didn’t require anything from anyone else. That this is what we wanted," said Kelly-Manders.

But Rep. James Grant (R-Tampa) says the legilsation simply follows the language voters approved on the ballot.

It said after completing all terms. There is no way to construe the language to suggest that a payment plan, a promise or an effort to pay is completion of the terms.

"It said after completing all terms. There is no way to construe the language to suggest that a payment plan, a promise or an effort to pay is completion of the terms," said Grant.

The organization that got the Amendment on the ballot, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, didn’t want or expect felons to have to pay all their fees before registering to vote. But Neil Volz works with the group and says the new law is still an accomplishment. 

"We were excited about this expansion of democracy, 800 plus thousand more people by our estimates are eligible to vote under the new law. 500 plus thousand people have a financial obligation," explained Volz. "We want to work with both groups to get people plugged into their community, registered to vote and moving forward in their lives."

But groups like Brennan Center for Justice and ACLU have hinted at lawsuits stemming from the constitutional change. Julie Ebenstien is a lawyer for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

There is nothing fair about this new law it's really just politicians putting a price tag on the right to vote.

"There is nothing fair about this new law it's really just politicians putting a price tag on the right to vote," said Ebenstein.

Ebenstein says the new law is undemocratic. And argues that in a legal context, completing a sentence doesn’t mean paying all associated costs.

"It’s making wealth or inability to pay a barrier to voting, which is clearly unconstitutional," said Ebenstein.

For now, felons are being told to contact their County Clerk to figure out if they’ve completed their sentencing obligations.