The debate over how the state should implement Amendment 4 moved to the Florida Senate Monday afternoon. At the center of the debate is whether an implementing bill is needed and which ex-felons qualify to have their voting rights automatically restored.
“Our concern is that what you have introduced and amended today will continue to restrict the availability of the right to vote to individuals, unnecessarily so,” American Civil Liberties of Florida’s political director Kirk Bailey told members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
The amendment would automatically restore the voting rights of more than a million ex-felons who have served their time and weren’t convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.
But there are differences between the House and Senate implementing bills. Those differences include what it means for someone to have completed their sentences, as well as definitions of murder and sexual offense.
The House proposal was unveiled last week and includes a broader definition of “sexual offenses,” which would include prostitution. The Senate bill would limit “sexual offenses” to those felons who qualify for the state’s sexual offender registry.
While the Senate plan includes attempted murder and manslaughter in its defintition of murder, it more narrowly defines which ex-felons would not automatically have their voting rights restored and could mean thousands of ex-felons could qualify than under the House version.
There is also the issue of financial obligations.
The House plan also requires felons to pay all fines, court fees and restitution before they qualify to have their voting rights restored.
Critics accuse the House bill 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.”
“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, 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.”
The Senate plan would allow ex-felons to vote providing their court fees have been converted to a civil lien, which normally occurs. Any restitution owed to victims would have to be paid back in full.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee took up the Senate’s bill for the first time Monday and gave it’s approval.
“We have worked so hard to get to this point for you to say you can’t do it because you had restitution, you can’t do it because you had this, you can’t do it because you had that,” Janet Wright, a former inmate told the committee. “We’ve paid our dues. We’ve paid our debts.”
“This is obviously a work in progress,” said committee member, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “It’s obviously going to take some work between us and our colleagues to make sure we’re going to get it right.”