Debate over a House bill that would implement Amendment 4, which automatically restores the voting rights of convicted felons once they have served their time, is heating up in Tallahassee.
At the center of the debate is whether the amendment stands on its own, or does it need more definition in terms of the type of ex-felons it covers. There are also questions being raised about making ex-felons repay all of their debts to society in terms of time served and financial obligations. A backer of the amendment claims the debate is a sign of the “politicization” of the amendment, but others say the amendment needs further clarification.
Gov. Ron DeSantis agrees that the amendment needs further definition.
“I just read it and said there are probably going to be questions that come up,” DeSantis said Tuesday morning. “So do you want the executive branch to just unilaterally, by fiat, make these decisions, or do you want it to be in a public debate where it can be debated legislatively.”
Under the House proposal, ex-felons would have to pay back all court fees and fines before being allowed to vote, even if those costs were not included as part of a judge’s sentence. It would also require the Department of Corrections to notify each inmate of his or her obligations before being released.
The bill had its first hearing before the House Civil Justice committee Tuesday morning. With a vote that followed along party lines, Republicans were able to advance the legislation.
Critics accuse supporters of the proposal of trying to thwart the will of voters who overwhelmingly approved the amendment in November and make it more difficult to get their voting rights restored. They suggested the bill amounts to a “poll tax.”
Their claims angered the sponsor of the House bill.
“What I read yesterday, quite frankly, pi__ed me off,” said Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa.
“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” Grant claimed. “All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following testimony of what was presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence.”
That led to charges by the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who claimed the party line vote is a sign that the issue is being “politicized.”
“Today, we saw the beginning of the politicization of Amendment 4,” said the coalition’s Neil Volz.
“We think we can do better than that.”
Local election officials have told the Legislature they need help interpreting the amendment which allows for more than a million ex-felons to have their voting rights restored, instead of going through the traditional clemency process which can take years.
The amendment makes exceptions for those convicted of “murder” and “sexual offenses.” Grant said nowhere in the amendment does it specifically define “sexual offense,” so he included every sexual offense listed in Florida statutes.