Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed legislation that will require people with felony convictions to pay all of their outstanding fines and fees before they can vote again, a move that critics say significantly undermines a constitutional amendment to expand voting rights in the state.
The amendment, which voters approved overwhelmingly in November, repealed Florida’s lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions. The measure allows those convicted of a felony, except for murder or sexual offenses, to vote once they “complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The change was estimated to affect up to 1.4 million people. It got rid of a policy rooted in the racism of the Jim Crow South.
But Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the state legislature, argued that completing a criminal sentence should include repaying all financial obligations ordered as part of that sentence. The legislature approved the new requirement in May.
In a letter addressed to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee on Friday, DeSantis suggested the legislation was a step toward addressing flaws he saw in the voting rights amendment.
“Curiously, the amendment did not address the restoration of other civil rights, such as the right to hold public office and to serve on a jury,” the governor wrote, adding that he would consider doing so for nonviolent offenders.
DeSantis went on to say he thought it was a “mistake” that the amendment restored voting rights to those convicted of some violence offenses, including attempted murder and kidnapping.
“As I consider options for restoration of civil rights to non-violent offenders, my administration will execute this legislation to ensure the restoration of voting rights,” he wrote.
The law that DeSantis signed does allow people to petition a judge to waive their outstanding fines and fees. But state legislators eliminated a different provision that would have allowed someone to vote if a judge converted that debt to a civil lien ― something frequently done when someone finishes a sentence but can’t pay the related debt.
The American Civil Liberties Union has already hinted that it may sue over the measure, which critics say is akin to a poll tax. Republicans passed the bill over strong objections from supporters of the amendment, who argued that requiring repayment would drastically weaken the impact of the constitutional change. They say many people convicted of felonies accumulate debts they can never afford to repay and therefore will never be able to vote in the state. One estimate, which relied on 2007 data, found that requiring repayment of fines and fees could lower the number of people effectively eligible for restored voting rights from 1.4 million to 840,000.
Antonia Blumberg contributed to this report.