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House Passes Implementing Bill Allowing Felons To Vote

Florida's capitol complex, as seen from above (undated photo)

Earlier this week legislators on the House floor spent nearly two hours debating a bill that would allow certain felons to vote. This is in response to over 5 million citizens agreeing that they should be allowed to do so. Majority of the debate was focused on when a felon would have their voting right restored.

In a 71 to 45 vote, split on party lines, the house approved an implementing bill that would allow felons who have not committed murder or a sexual offense to vote, as long as they’ve completed the terms of their sentence.

But many have a different idea of what completion means. Rep. Michael Gottlieb (D-Plantation) describes his definition.

“The terms are complete once an offender agrees to and submits to a collection mechanism of a civil lien, and the sentence is deemed over and the jurisdiction of the court ends," said Gottlieb.

Gottlieb believes that’s what voters understood completion of a sentence meant and that the bill changes the meaning.

“By this bill you are adding terms to completion of sentence and by doing so legislating to the courts what the ends of a sentence means. That violates the separation of power.” said Gottlieb.

But proponent of the bill Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples) says there’s no way to know what voters thought.

"We assume what the 5.2 million voters thought when they read the ballot initiative but we do not know for sure what each and every person of the 5.2 million that voted for amendment 4, we don’t know what was in their mind," said Donalds.

Donalds says what’s more important is not what’s in their mind but what was on the ballot.

"Our job to be honest with you is not to be in the hearts and minds of every single voter that voted for it, when we couldn’t possibly have known what was in the hearts and mind of every single voter when they voted for it. What we have to do is look at the letter of the amendment. Look at the construct of the debate for that amendment and then synthesize what he implementing language is going to be so there is no question and no doubt how the agencies of the state of Florida are going to implement this for the 1.4 million voters who are going to try and come back into the process," said Donalds.

Rep. Wengay Newton (D-St.Petersburg) doesn’t buy that notion.

"That’s politics that’s all it is, so when you talk about not knowing the will of 5.2million Florida registered voters, I really don’t buy that," said Newton.

Minority leader  Rep. Kionne McGhee (D-Miami), says this is why voters distrust elected officials.

"You see this is why society doesn’t trust elected officials, because they send us to here to do one thing and we do the totally opposite thing," said McGhee.

McGhee says when the sponsors of the amendment spoke to the Supreme Court it was clear.

"This language went before the supreme court of the state of florida and the supreme court of the state of florida looked at the language with their expertise, not elected officials here, but with their expertise. And said, you know what those 62 words are perfect," said McGhee.

But Rep. Ray Rodrigues (D-Fort Myers) says during that testimony the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who backed the ballot initiative said felons would have to pay back fines and fees during the supreme court meeting.

"The drafters of amendment four went before our very own supreme court and when asked multiple times if financial obligation including restitution, fines and fees were included in the sentence, multiple times the drafters of amendment 4 answered yes, said Rodrigues.

A Senate version awaits a floor vote by the Chamber.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.