Spectrum Bay News 9 Political Reporter Mitch Perry is looking for deeper meaning in politics and government so our local stories have more of a connection in your daily life.
HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren has unveiled a process where felons who still have outstanding financial obligations from their sentence can petition his office to possibly get their voting rights restored.
- Nearly 65% of Floridians passed Amendment 4 in 2018
- Added bill calls for felons to pay off fines before voting restored
- Added legislation to Amendment 4 being litigated in federal court
- Hillsborough Public Defenders Office allowing felons to petition for voting rights
His announcement comes nearly six months after Governor Ron DeSantis signed an elections bill that limited the number of eligible felons who could vote following the passage of Amendment four in 2018. That constitutional amendment called for the automatic restoration of voting rights for all felons who had completed their sentence, with the exception of those convicted of murder or a sexual offense.
But the bill that the legislature passed and DeSantis signed said that former felons had to have paid off all of their outstanding fines, fees, or restitution imposed upon them when they were handed down their sentence before they can vote.
PETITION TO RESTORE VOTING RIGHTS
Sitting with a member of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), Warren went on the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office Facebook page Tuesday to announce that his office had created a process where citizens with financial obligations can go to the State Attorney’s website to file an application to get the process rolling on restoring their right to vote.
“We’ve created a process that applies to anybody,” said Jessica Younts, the vice president of the FFRC, the leading advocacy group for Amendment Four. “Anybody with any questions regarding their financial obligations can apply. We’ve created a system where we can determine what financial obligations are barriers to voting, and adjust those barriers.”
“The key is we want to get everybody involved,” Warren added. “The idea that Amendment 4 would be limited to only people who can afford it, is unfair. It’s un-American. And it’s unacceptable.”
SO WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU CAN'T PAY YOUR FINES?
Warren said that if the application demonstrates that the citizen is unable to repay the financial terms of their sentence that information will be passed along to the Hillsborough County’s Office of the Public Defender, who will then review the information and prepare an “appropriate" motion.
The Court would then determine if the sentence is eligible for modification for the purposes of restoring the citizen’s voting rights. If the Court approves, then a copy of the Court’s Order would be sent over to the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office to allow the citizen to register to vote.
State attorneys in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties have previously announced similar processes to make it easier for felons with outstanding fines or fees to be able access the right to vote.
HOW DID THE ADDITIONAL LEGISLATION COME IN TO PLAY?
Amendment Four was passed in 2018 with nearly 65 percent of the vote. Supporters said it was "self-implementing" and didn't require any additional legislation, but various supervisors of elections came before the Legislature after the measure passed and said they needed guidance from state lawmakers because they remained uncertain about how to determine who would be eligible to vote.
That resulted in the legislature passing a bill that said that the completion of sentence was meant to include the outstanding payment still owed for any fines, fees, or restitution that came with the sentence.
Democrats and civil rights organizations strongly objected the bill saying that the law now amounted to a “poll tax” of sorts. But Republicans countered that the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition had said that fines and fees were part of the completion of sentence on their website before the amendment passed.
A federal judge ruled last month that 17 felons who are suing the state should not be removed from the voting rolls. They filed suit after DeSantis signed the law banning felons who still owe fines, fees, or restitution from voting. The governor's office is appealling the ruling.