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Florida governor signs bill requiring felons to pay court fees and fines to be eligible to vote

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. The legislation requires those with felony convictions to pay court fees and fines to be eligible to vote.

During the spring legislative session, Democrats argued that such a restriction goes against the spirit of the constitutional amendment voters passed in November. Amendment 4, which restores voting rights for felons other than convicted murderers and sex offenders, was approved with 64.5 percent of the vote.

The language in that amendment said felons must complete their sentences. 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 the original intent of the felon voting ban was to repress the minority vote, because minorities historically have been disproportionately convicted of felonies.

More than 2,000 people with felony convictions added their names to the Florida voting rolls during the first three months of 2019, according to a recent study by the Brennan Center. Of those, the average income was $15,000 less than that of the average Florida voter.   

Critics said the bill will disproportionately impact low-income individuals who can't afford to pay their financial obligations after their release, prompting fears of permanent disenfranchisement. Florida is one of a handful of states where fees and fines are the sole source of funding for the courts. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has supported the restoration of voting right for felons and says it will now sue the state over the newly signed law. 

"Losing the right to vote—a basic right of citizenship—is one of the many collateral consequences triggered by a felony conviction, and an unjust obstacle to returning citizens' full participation after they complete their sentence," the organization said in a statement. "We are bringing this lawsuit on behalf of ten Floridians, all of whom have achieved a great deal since their conviction."

The bill's signing has already caught the attention of 2020 Democratic candidates. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on Friday slammed the legislation, calling it "Jim Crow-era nonsense." "My democracy plan would re-enfranchise those who have served their time and left prison," Warren said in a tweet.

When the House passed its initial version of the bill, 2020 Democratic candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called it "racist and unconstitutional." The same day, another presidential hopeful, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said it amounted to a Jim Crow-era law that forced black people to pay additional fees at voting booths.  

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.

Tyler Kendall contributed reporting. 

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