LAKELAND, Fla. (CN) – On a cloudy Friday morning, a small group of activists met in the parking lot of a Florida state senator’s office grasping glossy placards and wearing buttons supporting a recent constitutional amendment restoring the voting rights of felons.
The seven men and women, some with graying hair and one holding the hand of a toddler, came to speak with Senator Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and express their outrage over legislation that would require felons to pay all restitution, court costs and fees before being eligible to vote.
Criminal justice reform advocates say the bill undermines Amendment 4, a ballot measure passed overwhelmingly by voters in November that restores the voting rights of felons who complete their sentence with the exception of those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.
After a briefing by an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union, the constituents strode to the state senator’s door and turned the handle.
It was locked. Stargel’s office was closed for the day.
The ACLU organized actions at a handful of state senator offices on Friday to call attention to SB 7086. Stargel and other members of the Florida Senate’s judiciary committee will vote on the bill oMonday, the next step before the entire Senate votes on the measure. A similar bill in the Florida House, HB 7089, advanced through a committee on Thursday.
Stargel could not be reached for comment on Friday at her office in Tallahassee.
Since the passage of Amendment 4, several Republican lawmakers have expressed the need to clarify its language calling for “automatic” restoration for those “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.”
“If it is in the four corners of the sentence, it is the sentence,” Representative James Grant, R-Tampa, the sponsor of HB 7089, said during a House committee meeting on Thursday.
Grant also criticized the inability to ensure felons meet the requirements of voting eligibility and left open the possibility of more legislation.
“There is no process,” he said. “Somebody who walks in and says I’m eligible to vote, can vote. I find it offensive that we would do anything that erodes the integrity of elections, which is why it is incumbent on us to get this right.”
But criminal justice reform advocates say the Legislature is trying to circumvent the ballot measure with onerous roadblocks that could prevent felons from ever exercising the right to vote. Some have even called the bills a “poll tax,” harkening back to the discriminatory measures employed by southern states in the Jim Crow Era.
“It is legislative attempts like these that ultimately affect voter disillusionment and raise suspicion in the voting process in general,” Kirk Bailey, political director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. “Florida voters intended to pass and approve Amendment 4, and this bill is an affront to the clear intent of Florida voters who overwhelming approved Amendment 4.”
Although many proponents of Amendment 4 agree restitution ordered by a judge should be paid, they criticize any requirement that felons pay fees levied by the county courts and Florida Department of Corrections.
A 2010 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law called Florida’s system of court costs and user fees a form of “cash register justice.”
Many of the 20 categories of “legal financial obligations” do not have any exemptions for those unable to pay, according to the report.
At Senator Stargel’s closed office, the group of constituents ambled back to their cars.
“It would have been nice to talk to someone,” said Frank Mazuca, a bearded 65-year-old wearing an assortment of political buttons on his white T-shirt.”It’s very discouraging living in a state with the repression that goes on. This state is so backward. It really is.”