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The Fight To Vote Part 1: Florida Felons Battle For Re-Enfranchisement

Associated Press
Felon Leroy Jones joins other demontsrators outside court in Miami, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, where the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing arguments on whether the state is doing enough to help ex-felons restore their voting rights. Jones finished his sentence 10 years ago.

Voter registration advocates are rushing to register new voters in the run-up to the August primary and November presidential election. In Florida, the effort has been slowed as the state fights a lawsuit over whether felons have to repay fines and fees before they can vote. This story, the first in a four-part series, examines the implications of Florida’s Amendment 4, and the ongoing battle over felon voting rights.

Nearly three million Floridians braved the coronavirus pandemic to cast votes in Florida’s presidential primary in March. Among them: Gena Grant, a Tallahassee resident who, thanks to a constitutional amendment passed in 2018, was able to vote for the first time.

“There was a time I had made some mistakes in my life and wasn’t able to vote and I got my rights back since Amendment 4 went out," Grant said. "I’m a little overwhelmed I was just telling my friend that came with me that there’s a part of me that wants to cry."

Amendment 4 restored voting rights to most felons. Shortly after voters approved it in 2018, the legislature crafted what’s called an implementing law. Lawmakers placed additional restrictions on which felons can get their voting rights back. Among the mandates—the repayment of fines, fees, and restitution. Now, that language is at the center of an ongoing lawsuit over what felon rights advocates call a poll tax.

Latoya Moreland discovered she owed hundreds of dollars after getting a letter from her local supervisor of elections office. The letter came shortly after Moreland registered to vote.

“After I read it I’m looking at as I have money to pay in order to vote which I didn’t understand that I thought once Amendment 4 was passed it means we get our voter rights back if we complete our sentence," Moreland recently testified in a trial over the law. "So I was a little discouraged, I was upset, I cried a little bit and I ripped the paper up.”

The letter said Moreland owed $645 in fines and fees which had to be repaid before she could vote, something she told the judge is unlikely to happen.

"I’m on a fixed income and I don’t even have enough to cover the bills that I have that’s important for me and my family to survive."

Julie Ebenstein is an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, a plaintiff in the trial.

"What we saw the legislature do in response is to try to disenfranchise people who couldn’t afford to pay their fines, fees, and restitution obligations," Ebenstein said.

The ACLU is one of several groups suing the state over the law. Ebenstein has argued the legislature’s decision to require fines, fees, and restitution be paid before voting is not only wrong but unconstitutional.

“And for us, the ability to vote shouldn’t be based on the size of somebody’s bank account it shouldn’t be based on whether they can pay fees that can go toward supporting the Florida court system it should never be based on or be denied because of somebody’s wealth or lack of wealth," Ebenstein said.

Still, the state is holding its ground.

“The 'all terms of sentence' language is clear, that language is unambiguous, that language includes the payment of fines, fees, cost, restitution, and all other financial terms," argued Mohammed Jazil, an attorney for the state.

That argument so far hasn’t held up in court. The hearings took place in May. Most recently, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled the state cannot prevent felons from voting due to outstanding fines and fees. But that hasn’t stopped the state from appealing. It’s the latest appeal hearing has been scheduled for August 10.

In the next part of this series, we take a closer look at the history of poll taxes, the 24th amendment, and how felons lost the right to vote in the first place.

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.