After Florida voters last year approved a constitutional amendment restoring formerly incarcerated felons' voting rights, Republicans in both chambers passed a provision requiring they pay any outstanding court fees and fines before they can vote. The fate of the bill is in the hands of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The new law stipulates that for voting rights to be fully reinstated, felons need also to make any financial restitution regarding their past crime(s). And herein lies the genesis of the controversy. Paying costs relates to court costs, legal fines incurred, and/or any crime-related restitution.
The rights of citizens who complete their sentences is an issue that has no definitive interpretation from a federal level. The condition a former prisoner faces following the completion of his sentence is a states-rights issue and Florida has, and is, dealing with it independently. It is commonplace but not unanimous for states to rescind the right to vote for a felony conviction, though Florida is among the few states making it a lifelong ban.
Though voters passed the law, there are still a number of grey areas.
There is obviously opposition and grousing, but this is not a cut-and-dry scenario. The main charge is that this bill is a gambit by Republicans in the capital to stifle the newly reinstituted voting rights of 1.4 million ex-felons. But for this accusation to hold up, one must regard the new law to be a uniquely Democratic Party proposition. This is not an outlandish thought, as Democrats have been promoting this legislation for years, and the party salivates at the numbers of prospective backers.
Another accusation is that released felons are people who “have paid their debt to society.” But those making this claim conveniently avoid the reality that this law is dealing with actual financial debts. Provisions have been put in place that give judges the option of retaining the ability either to waive those payments or have them satisfied via community service.
One of the arguments made is that the loss of voting rights for a felon is somehow a novel concept. Though assured through the Constitution, voting rights are monitored on the state level, as are a number of other enumerated rights. Many of those are also affected when an individual is convicted of a felonious crime. In most cases an individual must surrender his or her passport once convicted, and frequently has his or her right to a firearm taken away.
Therein lies a primary difference with those engaged in the debate. It is fair to suggest that those arguing the most ardently to reinstate voting rights for felons would not be so impassioned to also reinstate that same individual’s Second Amendment rights. If that is, in fact, the scenario, then it seems proper to look at what is in the interest of the individual making the case.
As it stands there is no real problem with this bill. If there is restitution for a felon’s rights, then, does it not stand to reason that the voting privilege is reliant upon satisfaction of financial responsibilities? The vacancy in the argument can be seen in the accusation. If the requirement to clear all debts is said to be a Republican ploy to block votes, it stands to reason that the original proposal was a Democratic move to generate votes. Either both are improper tactics, or neither are.
Brad Slager, a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the entertainment industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.