Florida Legislature Proposes Limits On Restoring Felon Voting Rights

Mar 27, 2019
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Florida voters made it clear last November - even felons deserve to participate in democracy. They passed a referendum expanding voting rights to people who have committed felony crimes, and there are as many as 1.4 million felons in Florida. That is nearly one-tenth of the registered voting population in the state. Now, though, Florida's Republican-led legislature is considering bills that would limit which felons would be allowed back into the voting booth. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In many ways, Karen Leicht has done well since serving 30 months in prison on a federal conspiracy charge. She has a job, got back her passport and was able to travel to her daughter's wedding in Italy recently.

KAREN LEICHT: I mean, I'm like a citizen again except for I still can't vote.

ALLEN: The constitutional amendment approved by voters in November automatically restores the right to vote for felons, except for those with murder or felony sex offenses, with one major condition. It's, quote, "upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole and probation." For weeks now, Republicans and Democrats have been debating exactly what those several words mean. Republican leaders say completing a sentence includes paying all court costs, fines and fees, including restitution. Leicht says, because of the high restitution ordered as part of her conspiracy conviction, if that definition becomes law, she'll never vote again.

LEICHT: I am saddled with $59 million of restitution. And I need to make sure that when I go and register to vote, that I am not going to commit another crime because I'm not going back inside.

ALLEN: Leicht testified before a Florida Senate subcommittee this week, asking members to allow the amendment to become law without further restrictions. Advocates who helped put the measure on the ballot say the amendment is self-executing, that it doesn't require any action at all from the legislature. Florida's Republican leaders disagree. They say elections officials need guidance on what convictions still disqualify felons from voting.

Also, there's disagreement over whether all costs, fees and fines must be paid for a sentence to be complete. Even the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that supported the ballot measure, in the past said felons would repay court-ordered fees and fines before regaining the right to vote. At this week's hearing in Tallahassee, Republican Senator Jeff Brandes called out advocates of the measure for changing their position.

JEFF BRANDES: So I'd like to read directly from their website. It says, (reading) we believe the completion of all terms of their sentence includes any portion of incarceration, probation, parole and financial obligations imposed as part as an individual sentence.

NEIL VOLZ: As it relates to how we've communicated these issues of the past, there have been instances which we haven't been as clear as we would have liked to have been.

ALLEN: Neil Volz, with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, says he believes the question of when a felon sentence is completed should be left up to judges, not the legislature. Upon completion of probation, oftentimes judges convert outstanding fines and fees to civil liens, which Volz believes should then allow a felon to register to vote. Otherwise, he says, the law would penalize the poor.

VOLZ: Having a system in which people without money are not able to vote, and people with money are able to vote, violates the morality at the heart of all of us.

ALLEN: When this debate began earlier this month, Democrats immediately branded the requirement that all fees be repaid a poll tax. The charge angered Republicans, like House Judiciary Chairman Paul Renner.

PAUL RENNER: This is in no way, shape or form a poll tax, which was an awful, egregious part of our past to prevent people who are entitled to vote from voting. It's simply saying that, at the time you committed something that was so bad we deemed it a felony, that you should complete the sentence that you were given at the time of sentence.

ALLEN: Renner says, despite the attacks from Democrats, those who think Republicans oppose restoring voting rights to felons are wrong. He believes there are a lot of potential Republican voters among the 1 million-plus felons eligible to have their voting rights restored in Florida, and his party intends to compete for every one of them.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.