Florida Advocates Turn To Voter Registration As Felons Are Cleared To Vote Regardless Of Financial Obligations
Most felons who want to register to vote in Florida can now do so without having to worry about paying fines, fees, and court-ordered restitution first. Advocates are gearing up to try and get people registered ahead of the upcoming elections.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle’s order clears the way for what advocates say is the true meaning of Florida’s Amendment 4. Brennan Center for Justice Attorney Sean Morales-Doyle says it’s a win for everyone.
“I would say it’s not only a win for hundreds of thousands of people with convictions it’s also a win for the over five million people that voted for Amendment 4," Morales-Doyle said. "It’s really a win for all voters in Florida because I think we all benefit when we welcome more people to the table to participate in democracy. And that’s what this order will do.”
Florida Amendment 4 in 2018 restored the right to vote for most felons. It exempted those convicted of rape and murder. When Florida lawmakers decided to write an implementing bill, they required felons to repay fines, fees, and restitution in order to register to vote. Critics called that a “poll tax”. In his ruling, Hinkle agrees the money must be repaid but it’s not a condition of registration:
"So if I owe one of those two categories fines or restitution and I’m able to afford and I could pay it off then I need to pay it off before I can vote but everyone else can vote now," Morales-Doyle said.
And, for people who can’t afford to pay at all, Hinkle says they’re still free to register too.
“If you aren’t sure about what you owe and you think maybe you’ve got the number right but you’re not positive, or if you’re not sure you qualify as being unable to pay that you can ask the state for an advisory opinion," Morales-Doyle said. "You can say, you tell me Florida what do I owe what do I need to pay, and here’s all my financial information I think that I’m unable to pay, tell me whether I’m able to. And the state basically has three weeks to give you an answer and if they can’t give you an answer then you can assume you’re good to go.”
The ruling clears the way for an estimated 774,000 potential new voters. Now the League of Women Voters Florida is pushing to help get those felons registered before the November elections. League President Patricia Brigham says outreach has changed for them due to the coronavirus.
“Once it was clear that COVID-19 was a clear and present danger and we all went to a shelter in place which many Floridians are continuing to do we knew that we could no longer do person to person registration so we suspended it as long as we have to," Brigham said. "And we are doing voter registration by pointing Floridians to Vote411.org.”
voter registration advocate Bob Rackleff is the founder of the Big Bend Voting Rights Project. He’s set to start going door-to-door again.
"We’re going to go start registering voters again and we’re expanding into ultimately 12 counties and we’re very hopeful about the outcome," Rackleff said.
There’s no guarantee newly registered voters will cast ballots in the Fall.