FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – At a congressional field hearing on voter suppression in Florida, Democratic lawmakers were up in arms Monday over a new Sunshine State measure that bars felons from reclaiming the right to vote unless they pay the court costs, restitution and fines from their criminal cases.
“Poll tax” was the phrase of choice for Democratic politicians at a meeting of the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections in Fort Lauderdale.
That’s what U.S. Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson called a just-passed Florida bill which, among other voting law tweaks, stops felons from exercising their restored voting rights until they pay off their restitution debts and other financial penalties assessed against them.
In November’s midterm election, Floridians voted in favor of restoring felons’ voting rights by a 64.5 to 35.5% margin, surpassing the 60% supermajority needed. It was estimated that more than a million people who had served out felony sentences were poised to have their rights restored.
Amendment 4 stated that it would restore “the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Excluded are murderers and felony sex offenders, who must seek redress from the governor’s office on a case-by-case basis if they want their voting rights reinstituted.
State Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a member of the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature, said last week that the wording “all terms of their sentence” plainly includes restitution, court costs and fines. The Legislature was simply following Amendment 4’s text when they voted to include the payoff requirement last week, Brandes told the press.
Congresswoman Schultz was aggressive in her dissent at the hearing Monday.
“[The Legislature] made what I believe is an illegal decision to proscribe or interpret the voters’ intentions. . . . It is plain and simple: a requirement for payment in order to be able to exercise your right to vote,” Schulz said.
Former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who lost his 2018 bid for Republican U.S. Senator Rick Scott’s vacated governorship, echoed the “poll tax” characterization in a line of questioning with the congressional panel. In testimony before the panel, Gillum cited research from the Brennan Center for Justice that purportedly shows only a small percentage of people with felony convictions reclaim their voting rights if they are first required to pay off court costs.
Thousands of dollars in obligations to the court can be an insurmountable financial burden for many people who are rebuilding their life after a jail term, Gillum said.
Both sides of the issue anticipate a legal challenge to the payoff requirement.
Logan Churchwell, communications director for the voter-fraud watchdog Public Interest Legal Foundation, said that the validity of the payoff requirement is poised to be parsed out in federal court.
Churchwell maintained in his testimony that once the amendment passed, state lawmakers needed to define its language, including the “all terms of their sentence” phrase.
They “could not just say, ‘Supervisors of elections, y’all figure it out,'” Churchwell argued.
“You would’ve had supervisors acting differently in different counties,” he told the panel.
The measure in dispute still needs to be approved by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis before it goes into effect.
Turning to the bill’s text, the payoff required for Florida felons to get back their voting rights “does not include any fines, fees, or costs that accrue after the date” of the underlying court order. Notably, a felon’s court debt is considered outstanding even if converted to a civil lien.
The measure specifies that a felon’s voting rights can be restored without payment if the court terminates his or her case debt, or converts it to community service hours.
Civil rights attorney Judith Browne Dianis told the panel her voting rights group Advancement Project is preparing litigation to challenge the Legislature’s restrictive actions on the Amendment 4 voting rights restoration.
“That’s a threat. A real one,” she said.
Chaired by Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the hearing was held in a dimly lit government complex in downtown Fort Lauderdale in Broward County. It was part of a string of remote hearings held by the House subcommittee across the country, tackling voting rights issues and election administration.
Broward County was cast into the national spotlight after its late vote counts in last year’s midterm caused Scott’s comfy lead in the Senate race to drop off precipitously after election night.
Scott held a press conference amid the controversy, suggesting that “unethical liberals” were trying to “steal the election.” He won the Senate seat by roughly 10,000 votes following a recount fraught with legal wrangling.
A less-than-prominent positioning of the U.S. Senate race on the Broward County ballot was blamed for 30,000 undervotes in that race.