MIAMI (AP) — Florida felons will have to pay court-ordered financial obligations if they want their voting rights restored under a bill signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday.
During the spring legislative session, Democrats argued that forcing felons who've completed their prison sentences and probation to also pay court fees and fines goes against the spirit of the constitutional amendment voters passed in November. The amendment to restore voting rights for felons other than convicted murderers and sex offenders was approved with 64.5% of the vote. But the language said felons must complete their sentences, and Republicans interpreted that to include restitution, court costs, fines and fees imposed by a judge at sentencing.
DeSantis echoed that interpretation in a memo that accompanied the new law.
"Senate Bill 7066 enumerates a uniform list of crimes that fall into the excluded categories and confirms that the amendment does not apply to a felon who has failed to complete all the terms of his sentence," DeSantis wrote.
Democrats said that creates a hurdle that voters didn't intend when they approved the amendment. They also argued that the original intent of the felon voting ban was to repress the minority vote, because minorities historically have been disproportionately convicted of felonies.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that have supported the restoration of voting rights for felons filed a federal lawsuit Friday challenging the new state law.
"Over a million Floridians were supposed to reclaim their place in the democratic process, but some politicians clearly feel threatened by greater voter participation. They cannot legally affix a price tag to someone's right to vote," said ACLU senior staff attorney Julie Ebenstein.
The lawsuit cites what it called violations of the First, 14th and 15th Amendments and argues that the new law constitutes a poll tax.
"The ability to vote should not be based on the size of one's bank account," said Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida.
Ebenstein said that it is difficult for former felons to know the amount they owe to courts, because Florida has no centralized system.
"People are being left out in the dark whether they are eligible to register, and it will chill someone to register because they are running the risk of registering erroneously," Ebenstein said.
The bill does allow other pathways for felons to have financial obligations forgiven beyond simply paying them. Among the options would be to have a victim forgive the repayment of restitution or to have a judge convert financial obligations to community service.
Associated Press reporter Marcus Lim in Miami contributed to this report.