When Amendment 4 passed last November, many people thought it would give over a million people with felony convictions the right to vote in Florida. Among them was Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida until he retired earlier this year. He helped write the amendment.
At the time, WLRN asked Simon if he was wary that the state legislature could derail the amendment. The Florida legislature has repeatedly failed to properly implement citizen-driven ballot initiatives in recent years, only to be ordered to do so by the courts.
“I’m going to presume the best of intentions,” Simon said then.
Now, he’s singing a different tune.
“I was wrong,” he said in an interview this week. “I think the legislature did whatever they could to limit the effect and limit the number of people who are now newly eligible voters.”
And he says the fight is headed to court.
During the final week of Florida’s legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring anyone with a felony conviction to pay all fines and fees related to the charge before they would be entitled to vote. A WLRN analysis of fines relating to felony convictions found that more than $1 billion was issued in felony fines over the past five years. Less than 20 percent of those fines have ever been paid, principally because people cannot afford to pay them.
The total tally is hundreds of millions of dollars owed across the state for the last five years alone.
“The debt can be insurmountable,” Phil Telfayan, executive director of Equal Justice Under the Law, a national non-profit, previously told WLRN. “What I’m really worried about with Amendment 4 is that Florida is going to take that turn where folks who can’t afford to pay their court debt are barred from the voting box.”
Vague language in the amendment allowed this to happen. The amendment stated that someone’s right to vote would be automatically restored “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation,” without specifically defining what “all the terms of their sentence” actually entailed.
Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the legislature’s bill.
Amendment 4 went into effect in January, and since then the state has already granted voting rights to many people with felony convictions voting cards.
An analysis released last week by the Brennan Center, a non-partisan think tank, showed that the first wave of formerly incarcerated Floridians who registered to vote between January and March of this year — when Amendment 4 was in effect — make on average about $15,000 less than an average Florida voter. A full 44 percent of formerly incarcerated people who registered to vote over that timespan were black, whereas black voters make up only 13 percent of the state’s voter population.
The legislature’s bill does not create exceptions for fines and fees that are owed, but which a judge has converted into a civil lien — a common practice in the state. More than $440 million in fines and fees associated with felony convictions were reduced to civil liens between 2013 and 2018, according to a WLRN analysis. Previous versions of the legislation included exceptions for fines and fees converted to civil liens.
Simon likened the legislature’s hard line on civil liens to saying someone who graduated college didn’t actually graduate, because they still owe money on student loans.
“Nobody in their right mind would say ‘oh I didn’t graduate yet because I’m still paying off my student loan,’” said Simon. “So when I’m no longer under the jurisdiction of criminal courts and I have a civil lien to pay, I’ve completed my sentence, even though I’m still something maybe on a monthly basis.”
“I think the courts are gonna have to straighten out a lot of what they did,” said Simon.
Simon is now working on environmental issues in the state related to the blue-green algae that is popping up in the state’s waterways. He is no longer involved with the ACLU, but he is keeping his eyes on the implementation of Amendent 4, which he had fought for years to put on the ballot.
“I think the full impact of Amendment 4 might not be seen for many years, but we have turned the corner on ending this post-Civil War, Jim Crow, largely racist-in-its-origins voting ban,” said Simon. “The magnificent achievement of Amendment 4 is that the people took democracy into their own hands and went over the heads of a hostile legislature.”
Several non-profit advocacy groups have told WLRN they are currently preparing lawsuits to fight the law as soon as it is signed by the Governor. Groups told WLRN they are considering filing suits in both state and federal courts.