Florida Republicans Just Unveiled Their Devious Scheme to Get Out of Restoring Voting Rights to Former Felons

Credit: Florida State House of Representatives

Republicans on Florida's House of Representatives Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved a bill on Tuesday that requires felons to satisfy outstanding fines and penalties - fully - in exchange for re-enfranchisement, even if they are on a court-approved payment plan.

Florida voters restored voting rights by referendum last November for felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.”

Critics blasted the measure, which "subverts" the will of Floridians - 65 percent of whom voted in favor of Amendment 4.

“What the barriers proposed in this bill do is nearly guarantee that people will miss election after election …because they cannot afford to pay financial obligations,” Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News. “It’s an affront to the Florida voters.”

Ebenstein said that "keeping voters who can’t afford to pay their fees immediately, keeping them disenfranchised for additional years, decades, or for the rest of their life, is not what was contemplated by voters who passed this amendment."

Ebstein added that assessing past-due fines and penalties would disproportionately disenfranchise low-income felons and those who are on payment plans.

The bill “is an affront to Florida voters who approved Amendment 4," added Kirk Bailey, political director of Florida's ACLU. "If this bill passes, it will undoubtedly continue to disenfranchise those who have already served their time and paid their debt to society. This is exactly what we were worried about from the beginning—legislative attempts to undermine the will of the people who voted for second chances and to rid Florida of the last vestiges of its Jim Crow era past.”

But the proposal does not stop there. Felons would be required to obtain the "consent" of the individual or entity to whom the money is owed - a sometimes impossible task.

Republicans also decided to disqualify anyone guilty of a non-violent sexual offense, like certain prostitution crimes.

"I’ve never seen anything like that in my time practicing voting rights," Ebstein said. “What they’ve done is picked the broadest definition possible to exclude the maximum number of people from having their rights restored."

Voting rights advocates slammed the measure.

“The United States as a country has gotten rid of the poll tax," said Phil Telfayan, executive director of Equal Justice Under the Law. "What I’m really worried about with Amendment 4 is that Florida is going to take that turn where folks who can’t afford to pay their court debt are barred from the voting box.”

Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the bill is entirely unnecessary.

“That will restrict the ability to vote for thousands of Floridians, especially people who are poor, especially people of color,” said Volz.

It is abundantly clear what Republicans are doing.

There has also been pushback from Congress.

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) called the bill a poll tax.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) implied that the bill is unconstitutional.

This view was shared by former federal prosecutor Renaldo Mariotti, who said the bill "seems constitutionally deficient."

Blowback has been fierce across the board.

Florida Democratic State Representative Adam Hattersley also called the GOP bill a poll tax.

“It’s not only targeting the poor and is targeting minorities, but it’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax,” said Hattersley. “The will of the voters is clear, and this bill is trying to circumvent that.”

Republican James Grant, however, disagreed, chastising critics as "arrogant."

“One of the things that was said today was that I had the near arrogance to present this bill. I’ll tell you what is near arrogance. Near arrogance is ignoring testimony in front of the Supreme Court,” Grant said. “Near arrogance is suggesting this is a poll tax. Members, to suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes what a poll tax actually is.”

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