TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Former felons and their advocates cheered when Florida passed a landmark ballot initiative last fall restoring certain felons' voting rights. But now they're having to fight against Republican lawmakers proposing more conditions that may make it impossible for former felons to claim their new right.
In November, Florida passed Amendment 4, the largest expansion of voting rights in decades. The landmark ballot initiative restored the right to vote to approximately 1.5 million former felons who hadn't committed crimes like murder or sexual violence. But in the months since the election, some Republican lawmakers have worked to add clarifications to the amendment’s implementation. One crucial proposal is to require former felons to pay off all of the restitution, court fines, and fees associated with their sentence before they can actually qualify.
According to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, Florida has instituted about 115 different fines and fees. Between 2013 and 2018 alone, the state issued $1 billion in fines and fees for felonies. Many felons leave prison and struggle to find work, so it's unlikely they coud pay off debts and the interest that quickly accrues.
In the eyes of former felons like Coral Nichols, lawmakers aren’t trying to clarify Amendment 4. They’re using a loophole to undermine it.
Coral Nichols had been sentenced to pay $190,000 at a rate of $100 per month. “Sentencing someone to pay an amount of money that you know they will never pay back in a lifetime? It’s incomprehensible to me that we would set someone up in that manner,” Nichols told VICE News. The proposed legislation would make it impossible for her to settle the full debt before she dies. Her only option would be to ask for clemency.
In a purple state like Florida, 1.5 million new voters could drastically change the electorate and threaten the edge Republicans currently hold.
Republican Rep. Jamie Grant, who drafted the controversial House bill, says that this isn’t about politics but about laying out plainly what it means for someone to have completed their sentence — a requirement that has to be fulfilled before the right to vote is reinstated.
“What we are doing is upholding Amendment 4 exactly as it was offered to the voters,” Grant told VICE News. "Whether I like all of it or dislike some of it or I dislike all of it, my job is not to inject my beliefs here; my job is to uphold the integrity of our elections and exactly what was put before the voters.”
Grant’s bill in the House passed, but after meetings with activists like Coral, he did add an amendment that removed the expectation that they’d have to pay off interest. Legislators will have to get their bills passed in the House and the Senate the end of legislative session on May 3 if they want to get a bill before Gov. DeSantis this year.
This segment originally aired April 10, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.