The arc of justice bent briefly toward Florida in November, when citizens here restored the right to vote for most people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences. This overwhelming vote was designed to give the franchise back to 1.4 million people, the large majority of whom are white, who had been silenced by a law enacted to prevent freed slaves from voting 150 years ago.
Amendment 4 was very simple. Here is how it read on the ballot: “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.”
The vote in favor of Amendment 4 — 64.5 percent to 35.5 percent, out of nearly 8 million votes cast — reflected the work of organizations such as the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, the NAACP, churches, synagogues, mosques and many other civic organizations that worked to gather signatures. Petition signers, whether they wore Confederate flags on their T-shirts or expensive suits, told us that felony disenfranchisement affected all races and all economic and educational backgrounds. Their words created a smoldering sense that we could win.
That feeling was short-lived. The state legislature devised a way to once again deprive the vote of most of the people we had hoped to re-enfranchise. And the way lawmakers did it, with last-minute changes, when there was no more time for citizen input, was an affront to the democratic process. Florida’s legislative leadership decided that the initiative’s language, “complete all terms of their sentence,” needed some new embroidery.
In Florida, when you are convicted of a felony and sentenced to prison, you often have to pay a fine, court fees and costs, and occasionally restitution. In many cases, the sentencing judge rolls all of these costs into a civil judgment; two longtime attorneys, one a prosecutor and one a defense counsel, estimated that such judgments in Florida average about $1,500. The civil judgment takes the place of the criminal sentence, and thus when incarceration, probation and parole are over, the criminal portion of the sentence is considered complete, although the civil judgment remains.
On the day before the legislature adjourned last month, Florida’s lawmakers changed all that. They did away with the effect of civil judgments created by criminal judges. Under their interpretation of Amendment 4 and other proposed legislation, people who emerge from felony jail sentences with civil judgments will once again have to pay before their can vote again. Until those are settled, they cannot vote.
For many people with a felony conviction, who completed their terms of incarceration, probation and parole, this means finding a lawyer, determining the amount of the long-forgotten costs and fines, and then working and saving enough to pay it back, or asking the court for other relief. The legislature loaded up a vote-restoration process that was very streamlined. The new process could take years for some returning citizens to complete, and many will never be able to pay the fees back in their lifetimes. The Republican-led legislature is not concerned about these added burdens, and the governor has said he will sign this legislation.
The League of Women Voters of Florida and many other Amendment 4 supporters were working to re-enfranchise 1.4 million people who had done their time. The legislature, with a vote along mostly party lines, made sure that very few of those people will be allowed to vote now.
This is a travesty and a transgression of the people’s will. Lifetime disenfranchisement for former felons is a cruel and primitive punishment that ignores the fact that they have paid their debts to society and are once again taxpaying citizens with the rights and privileges that come with citizenship.
The measure, if signed by the governor, will deepen economic inequality: allowing the rich and affluent to vote while denying that right to so many who lack their means. This will particularly affect the African American community and is abhorrent to the promise of equality before the law. Florida’s 200-plus years of racial discrimination have led to vast economic disparities between whites and nonwhites, and the new law will continue that imbalance and restore Florida as one of just four states with ex-felon lifetime disenfranchisement.
In addition, the legislation would alter Florida’s voter-registration application to require everyone to state whether they have ever been convicted of a felony. This subjects people to possible discrimination and will have a chilling effect on voter registration.
The League and many of our voting rights allies are working hard to try to right this wrong. We have asked the governor for a veto, and we are preparing to train lawyers to assist returning citizens in completing a sentence as defined by the proposed law, if it is signed. We are determined to continue to champion and protect Amendment 4.
But the actions of a few all but promise that the right to vote in Florida will once again be guaranteed more for some than for others.