Florida felon voting rights bill advances with tweaks

April 10, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Advocates who helped pass a Florida constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for most felons are still unhappy with a bill that would implement the amendment even after it was tweaked to address some of their concerns. The bill is now heading to the House floor after receiving its final committee approval Tuesday.

At issue is what it means to complete a sentence. The bill being ushered through by Republican Rep. Jamie Grant says it means completing incarceration, parole and probation as well as paying any court costs, fees or restitution ordered by a judge at sentencing. Advocates don’t believe felons should face barriers to voting if they can’t afford court costs and fees, or restitution if it has been converted to a civil judgment.

The amendment to restore voting rights for felons who’ve completed their sentence was approved with 64.5 percent of the vote. The amendment bars murders or felony sex offenders from voting.

Grant amended his bill Tuesday to make it clear that felons wouldn’t have to repay costs incurred after a sentencing, such as interest on financial obligations and prison costs during incarceration. Other changes to the original bill allow a judge or a person owed restitution to waive the required payments and language that states that if officials are confused about whether a felon is eligible to have voting rights restored, the decision will be in favor of the offender.

Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the amendment was “a step in the right direction,” but he still opposes the bill overall.

“We’re not there yet. We disagree that the notion that court costs and administration costs should be part of the completion of sentence because of its impact on people who are trying to exercise these rights,” Volz said.

Democratic representatives agreed, saying voters wanted to give felons a second chance once they’ve finished their prison time and supervision.

“We do not need to be convicted felons to recognizing the atrocity of being disenfranchised,” Rep. Mike Gottlieb said. “Gov. (Ron) DeSantis himself has said that we need to facilitate the wishes of the voters, not frustrate and delay what the voters overwhelmingly called for.”

But Grant and other Republicans said that completing a sentence means all portions of it ordered by a judge and passing a law carving out exceptions would violated the constitution.

“If we’re not going to uphold complete integrity of every letter, word and piece of punctuation in the Florida Constitution, we may as well go home,” Grant said.