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Felons in Florida won back their right to vote. Now a new bill might limit who can cast a ballot

In November 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to nearly 1.4 million ex-felons. Republican lawmakers, however, say they want to more narrowly define which ex-inmates are able to cast a ballot, a move critics consider "racist and unconstitutional."

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he plans to sign the S.B. 7066, which would require all financial obligations be paid off before an individual can vote. This includes restitution, as well as court ordered fees and fines. He has until next week to put it on the books.

Supporters said it helps properly implement Amendment 4, which gave back voting eligibility to convicted felons "after they complete all terms of their sentence." It excluded those convicted of murder or sexual offenses. The measure also classifies what types of crimes can be considered a "sexual offense" and defines what would fall under "murder."

Some lawmakers said the amendment's language was too vague. So, both Republican-controlled chambers passed legislation in what they said is an attempt to clear up any ambiguity.

"If it's not defined, we leave it to the judge, the government to discriminate on a case-by-case basis and I think that's a recipe for rampant discrimination," said Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican, who championed the bill and is the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee.

Some critics, however, believe the bill is designed to discourage ex-felons from registering to vote.

Myrna Perez, the head of the Brennan Center for Justice's Voting Rights and Elections project, said Republican lawmakers are "trying to undermine" what 65 percent of voters decided last year.

"I think that's one of the things politicians who are throwing up all these roadblocks are trying to do, which is create this risk. To create this uncertainty for folks who are trying to keep their noses clean and trying to make good on a second chance that they were given," Perez said.

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.

Starting today, ex-felons can register to vote in Florida

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.

"Every state does it, but Florida relies exclusively on fees and fines to fund court operations," said Ashley Thomas, Florida state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. "They are often mandatory, there is no discretion given to a judge to waive them for somebody who is indigent."

Thomas said not every charge has fines, but every charge does have fees. This includes, for example, $50 for applying to have a public defender represent your case. According to the most recent data by the Measures for Justice, the average amount of fines and fees a convicted defendant paid in Florida was $923.

The bill does grant a judge the ability to either waive fees and fines completely, such as in exchange for community service. But it doesn't appear to be so easy. Thomas said the bill does not outline criteria a judge can weigh when deciding to issue a waiver, thus leaving discretion to the courts. The process also presents additional financial barriers.

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.

Grant sharply rebuked claims of voter suppression. He said Democrats were "disingenuous" and using the issue for  "politics and self-gain."

"My belief is that the political impact of Amendment 4 is not going to be what Florida Democrats believe," he said. "They've taken a posture that all felons who had their rights restored are automatically Democrats. I just don't think we should ever be in a place where one political party is suggesting that whoever breaks the law has the propensity to vote one way or another."