Voting rights

Republican lawmakers succeeded in making changes to Amendment 4 that voting rights advocates have begun to fight.

Republican lawmakers succeeded in making changes to Amendment 4 that voting rights advocates have begun to fight.

Gov. Ron DeSantis followed through on his pre-inaugural threat to add what Republicans consider structure to Amendment 4 when he signed the bill June 29.

The Florida Legislature passed a measure that requires people who completed their prison sentences to pay their court fees before being able to register to vote.

Advocates have mounted a fight against the extra step to the restoration of rights of formerly incarcerated people because they say it is unconstitutional.

Of the statewide voters in the November election when Amendment 4 was on the ballot, 65 percent decided released felons should have their voting rights restored. The measure was supposed to be self-executing excluding murderers and sexual offenders.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against Florida, saying the law is unconstitutional and akin to a 21st century poll tax.That requirement does not exist for people who have no conviction record and have court fees. They are able to register to vote without needing to pay their remaining court balance in advance.

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, spoke about what the organization will do during a press conference on July 2. His organization is seeking funds to help ex-felons pay their court fees.

Leaders of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition said at a news conference Tuesday that it hopes to raise $3 million through fundraising. The grassroots coalition already has raised $80,000 in just a few days, according to the Associated Press.

“We’ll continue to embrace the spirit of Amendment 4,” Meade said. "What we see in this legislation is an opportunity to engage returning citizens in a meaningful way. We’ll continue to develop a new political constituency.”

As of July 2, the fund received donations from 898 people and $100 is the minimum donation. The organization is trying to have the fees waived. Courts can convert fines and fees into community service hours.

“We want to create a situation where people who made mistakes are able to participate in their community and stimulate the economy,” Meade said.

Meade was incarcerated from 2001 to 2004. He and other voting-rights advocates who campaigned for Amendment 4 use the term “returning citizens” when referring to people who were incarcerated and had the right to vote taken.

“We use returning citizens because studies show if you call someone ex-felon, ex-con it increases the rate of recidivism,” Meade said. “We want them to walk into an environment that is more conducive to reentry. Part of creating that environment is how we talk about each other.”

DeSantis, in a letter to Secretary of State Laurel Lee, wrote he would only consider restoring voting rights to those convicted of non-violent offenses.

“Amendment 4 restores - without regard to the wishes of the victims - voting rights to violent felons, including felons convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping, so long as those felons completed all terms of their sentences.”

About 1.4 million ex-felons were expected to be able to vote after Amendment 4 passed. Reports show that about 500,000 of them have unpaid fees or fines that could prevent them from registering under the amended amendment.

The new law passed 67-42 in the House and 22-17 in the Florida Senate. As the law made its way to DeSantis’ desk - in committees and the readings - it received bipartisan support and opposition because of the changes. There are 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson said bills start one way and end differently.

“At the time of the yes vote, the bill did not contain the amendment which was felons restoration of rights,” Gibson said to The Miami Times. “The difference between the votes is the bill had different language. First had language about ballot procedures. The felons restoration of rights language was attached to the bill when it came back from the House.”

The history of fees set on eligible Black voters, a process known as a poll tax, dates back to the Jim Crow era. After losing the Civil War, former Confederate states set up poll taxes of $1 or $2 per year between 1889 and 1966 as a prerequisite to voting. An example of Jim Crow laws meant to prevent the social and economic advancement of Black people, a citizen paid the tax when registering and then every year after.

Many states had a compounding measure that required an individual to pay all previous years' poll taxes before a vote could be cast. Congress could have used its enforcement power contained in the 14th and 15th Amendments but did not. The 24th Amendment passed in 1964 began the change to get rid of poll taxes and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended the burdens by banning poll taxes in all elections in the U.S.

Also, in 1966, the Supreme Court decided 6-3 in Harper v. the Virginia Board of Elections, poll taxes at any level of elections were unconstitutional. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition estimates over 500,000 “returning citizens” are more burdened than others because of their income level.

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