Hundreds of thousands of Floridians who recently had their right to vote restored could again be barred from the ballot box, as state legislators are considering a bill that would undermine Amendment 4, the ballot initiative that voters approved last year that re-enfranchised more than a million people with felony convictions.
The bill, which was passed by the House last week, would require people with felony convictions to have fully paid any fines and fees before they are allowed to register to vote, even if the financial obligations are not related to their felony conviction.
“I think the chilling effect that will result [from] any sort of legislation is going to be something that Florida’s going to have to contend with,” Ashley Thomas, the Florida state director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said in an interview with ThinkProgress on Monday. “It’s going to keep a large number of people from voting.”
Following the passage of the House legislation, Neil Volz, the political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which led the Amendment 4 fight, said in an interview that the group would be fighting for the Senate’s version of the bill, which did not include the same fines and fees requirements.
“We have seen steps in the last few weeks of bipartisanship in the Senate, and that gives us hope,” Volz said Friday. “We know the Senate bill is a better reflection of the spirit of Amendment 4.”
But over the weekend, The Tampa Bay Times reported that two top Republicans in the state Senate said the chamber would consider the House’s more restrictive language, dealing a major blow to advocates like Volz.
Both versions of the bill were introduced in response to Amendment 4, which has allowed thousands of affected residents to register to vote since it officially went into effect in January. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and many Republicans in the state legislature have argued lawmakers need to weigh in on the amendment’s implementation. Advocates, meanwhile, say the language of the ballot initiative makes fairly clear that Amendment 4 is self-executing.
“We didn’t think that there needed to be implementing legislation,” Volz told ThinkProgress.
But ultimately, Volz said, the group determined not to fight against accompanying legislation detailing how the policy change should be implemented. Instead, the group decided to focus on making sure the proposed implementing legislation didn’t undermine Amendment 4.
“We are working with the returning citizen community in Florida, on behalf of returning citizens, for the best interests of returning citizens, and [we] believe that engaging in the conversation about what legislation would look like is in the best interests in the lives of people impacted,” Volz said. “That’s our North Star.”
By most estimates, a little more than 1 million people were re-enfranchised under Amendment 4, but there is no clear estimate of how many people would be affected by the fines and fees legislation.
One advocate warned it could feed a false narrative about voter fraud, too.
“There’s not a central location for returning citizens to check if they owe fines and fees,” Nailah Summers, the communications director for activist group Dream Defenders, said in an email. “People move, mail gets lost, etc. So if someone got their rights back, registered and votes, but doesn’t know they have money owed, they’d be committing a felony and play into the right’s ‘voter fraud’ myth. This bill is a huge set up, besides the often and correctly pointed-to poll tax.”
Thomas, the expert from the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said she expects that if the House version of the bill is signed into law, the state will face the prospect of litigation, and that Florida needs to find new ways to generate revenue.
“Fees and fines are used as a revenue generating process, and any sort of subsequent consequence from a person’s inability to pay is problematic from our perspective,” she said. “It’s not just the voting rights that are potentially impacted. People are looking at up to a 40% collections fee if they can’t [or] pay getting drivers licenses suspended.”
In the future, Thomas added, lawmakers could potentially add more clarifying language. But according to Thomas, the very fact that any legislation concerning Amendment 4 is in front of the legislature is concerning.
“Part of the reason we got to this point with a citizen-led initiative was because the legislature wasn’t listening to what people wanted,” she said. “There’s a sense among people working in this area that they had to take things into their own hands.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said an estimated 700,000 would be affected by the fines and fees legislation, but there is actually no clear estimate. The 700,000 figure is a conservative estimate from the state of how many people were affected by Amendment 4.