Representative Bruce Antone, Chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, joined fellow Democratic lawmakers at the Florida Capitol Wednesday to criticize Republican efforts to subvert the will of Florida voters by imposing onerous court fees on felons seeking to have their voting rights restored.
Last November, voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, a change in the Florida Constitution that would automatically restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million returning citizens that have served their time. The voters spoke, or so they thought. Currently Republican lawmakers are crafting implementing legislation that would torpedo the amendment.
“There are a majority of lawmakers who want to take what the voters saw as a reform in restoring voting rights to their fellow citizens and turn that into the second coming of the poll tax,” House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee said during a Wednesday press conference at the capitol. “If these lawmakers get their way in undermining Amendment 4, Florida will be ground zero for voter suppression and, once again, the laughing stock of the nation.”
Voters in Florida overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, ending a racially-tinged clemency process that forced felons to wait years and then beg for a pardon from Members of the Florida Cabinet in order to get their rights restored. “I have filed a bill for 6 years in the legislature to address restoration of rights and it has not received a hearing nor made it to the floor for discussion or a vote. When you are free from confinement, you must be free for opportunity particularly your voting rights. If you have not committed a life crime, you should not be given a life sentence and taking someone’s voting rights forever is a life sentence,” said Representative Clovis Watson, Jr.
Now, Republican lawmakers want to require felons to pay unrelated court fees before restoring their rights to vote. Since 1996, Florida has added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants, while eliminating exemptions for those who cannot pay. For many black, brown and white felons, the new requirements to pay the fees first will prevent them from the polls and voting for years to come. “Florida relies on fees to finance core government functions, including the courts. Since 1996, Florida has added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants while eliminating exemptions for those who can’t pay. A Brennan Center for Justice study of Florida’s courts called the process a Cash Register Justice,” said Representative Geraldine Thompson.
Don’t believe the hype that forcing felons to pay back fees will make them more responsible citizens,” Senate Representative Kamia Brown said. “What’s really driving this effort to subvert Amendment 4 is the 2020 elections. Republicans want a win and voter suppression is the way to do it.”
“When the voters of Florida overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, they knew what they were doing. They believed in second chances,” said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson. “The Republican attempts to tie the ability to vote with the ability to pay not only mocks the people’s will, but is likely unconstitutional. It underscores that what is really driving this legislation is the 2020 elections. Republicans want a win, and they’re willing to subvert the constitution to do it.”