Florida voters overwhelmingly chose to restore the voting rights of people with former felony convictions when they passed Amendment 4 in November last year, only to see Gov. Ron DeSantis sign a law seven months later that would deny that right if a former felon owes money to the state. That means an estimated half a million Floridians out of the 1.4 million whose voting rights were just restored will lose their rights once again because of what civil rights groups suing the state are calling a poll tax.
“At the 11th hour they essentially thwarted the will of Florida voters by attaching fines and fees, which was not a part of the ballot language,” said Patricia Brigham of Florida’s League of Women Voters, one of the groups acting as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Desmond Meade was one of those former felons who registered to vote for the first time in decades after Amendment 4 passed. He is now the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, where he works to engage other former felons as citizens and voters. The FRRC was active in working on the Amendment 4 ballot initiative.
Meade identifies as a “returned citizen,” a term adopted by formerly incarcerated people to describe their re-entry. The language is used to send a message that the page is being turned on a conviction after time has been served, inspired by a Florida State University study that showed labeling someone a felon or convict increases the likelihood of recidivism. And being a returned citizen, Meade said in an interview, includes “being able to have your voice heard, being able to vote.” That’s why he says that, going forward, he plans to continue to work to “tear down the walls of old Jim Crow laws and allow the pathway for people to get the right to vote back.”
It was in fact a legacy of Jim Crow that was smashed when Amendment 4 was passed, and a restriction that blocked one in five black Floridians from voting, helping to keep the state red by blocking a large percentage of the heavily Democratic African American vote. The amendment appeared to increase the number of Florida voters dramatically, with voter registration more than doubling compared to four years earlier. Of the formerly incarcerated newly registered voters who joined the rolls from January to March, 44% were African American.
Amendment 4 was one of the largest expansions of suffrage in the United States since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But Republicans in control of the state legislature interpreted the amendment so as to make its requirements as onerous as possible.
The language of the amendment said that felons must complete their sentences, but Republicans interpreted the language as including a requirement that all court fines and fees imposed by a judge at sentencing had to be paid in full before voting rights could be restored—and passed legislation to formalize the requirement.
“What the legislature has done, what the governor has done by signing this bill is a form of voter suppression, and we are fighting it,” Brigham said.
One ex-felon, Steven Phalen, who was convicted in Florida but now lives in Wisconsin, told the Tampa Bay Times that he owes about $110,000 in restitution. Though he registered to vote in Florida after the amendment passed, he expects he’ll likely be kicked off the voter rolls because of his debt.
While the civil rights groups suing the state wait for a court assignment, organizations are also mobilizing to register individuals and work on a case-by-case basis to provide legal assistance. Meade said that the FRRC will help individuals understand what fees they may owe, and try to work through the courts to adjust them or exchange them for community service, for example. He will also be crowdfunding to help provide legal assistance and pay some of the cost of the fines.
The League of Women Voters will also be working with attorneys who can meet with returning citizens to guide them in their voter registration and in understanding what debts they may owe to the state.
“We’re doing this the old-fashioned way, one person at a time, figure out alternative routes to focus on the people more than anything,” Meade said. He has started a crowdsourced campaign to raise money for former felons to pay their fees and fines to be able to vote.
Though the new law will make it harder for ex-felons to regain their right to vote, Amendment 4 did what it was supposed to do, Meade said. “Where other people see obstacles, I see opportunities to engage citizens.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, another plaintiff in the lawsuit against the state of Florida, more than 4.5 million American citizens are unable to vote because of a past criminal convictions.
One example is Black Voters Matter, currently touring various cities this week to register former felons, adding to the efforts of local organizations that have worked to restore their rights under a new law that just went into effect in March.
Alexandra Arriaga is a staff reporter at Prism focusing on voting rights and criminal justice. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexarriaga__.