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Disenfranchisement News: FL Supreme Court rules all costs must be paid to regain voting rights

January 28, 2020
Florida rules all costs must be paid to restore voting rights, Georgia Senate study committee votes to not expand voting rights, and more in our latest Disenfranchisement News.

Disenfranchisement News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Florida Supreme Court rules all costs must be paid to regain voting rights

The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Gov. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, who argued that people eligible to vote under Amendment 4 must pay back all court-ordered fees, fines and restitution before registering to vote. 

In 2018, voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4 to automatically restore voting rights to most people convicted of a felony upon completion of all terms of their sentence. The Republican-controlled legislature then passed SB 7066, which defined “all terms of sentence” to include all legal financial obligations. Civil rights and voting rights advocates criticized the bill, calling it an unconstitutional poll tax. The controversy prompted Gov. Desantis, who opposed Amendment 4, to ask the state’s Supreme Court to weigh in on the bill’s definition.

“We conclude that the phrase, when read and understood in context, plainly refers to obligations and includes ‘all’ — not some — LFOs [legal financial obligations] imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt,” the Justices wrote. However, the Court’s opinion does not affect the separate federal lawsuit challenging SB 7066, which is scheduled to go to trial in April.

“Florida cannot violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections,” said a joint statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Brennan Center for Justice, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The right to vote cannot be contingent on the ability to pay. We will continue fighting in federal court for our clients and the hundreds of thousands of Floridians’ voting rights that SB7066 seeks to unconstitutionally and permanently eliminate.”

Georgia Senate study committee votes to not expand voting rights

In a 3-2 vote along party lines, a Republican-led legislative committee approved a recommendation to not expand voting rights for people with felony convictions. The senate committee formed in Fall 2019 to study the state’s felony disenfranchisement laws and provide recommendations for this year’s legislative session. Currently, Georgia’s Constitution prohibits anyone convicted of a “felony involving moral turpitude” from voting until their sentence is completed. The state has never defined which felonies involve “moral turpitude,” and election officials have interpreted it to mean all felonies trigger the loss of voting rights. After Georgians complete their prison, probation or parole sentence, they are also required to pay off any outstanding court fines before they are eligible to register to vote.

Voting rights advocates were hopeful lawmakers would embrace at least a partial reform of the law, such as defining a list of felonies involving moral turpitude or reinstating voting rights more quickly for those convicted of non-violent felonies. Despite the committee’s vote, Democratic Sen. Harold Jones II says he still plans to introduce legislation that would define which felonies result in a loss of voting rights this session.

Iowa Secretary of State overhauls felony disenfranchisement database

After errors were found in the state’s database of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, Secretary of State Paul Pate’s office has begun to rebuild the entire database with verified records. There are more than 100,000 unique records on convictions and restorations that are being removed from the system and added back in only after verification by election officials. “The goal is to have a complete, clean list by Election Day in November,” Secretary Pate said. “We want to make sure no one is on the list that shouldn’t be there.”

With just a few weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Gov. Kim Reynolds is directing her administration to do everything possible to review and approve applications for rights restoration. “Any returning citizen who has already submitted their application can rest assured that if they’re eligible, their voting rights will be restored before the Feb. 3 caucuses,” the governor’s office said. Gov. Reynolds has processed over 300 applications that will be added to the new database. 

Michael Bloomberg joins fellow Democratic presidential candidates in calling for felony disenfranchisement reform

In his plan to expand access to the ballot, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg said he wants to restore voting rights in federal elections to people with felony convictions upon completion of their prison sentence. 

Several other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on the debate around felony disenfranchisement reform. Senator Bernie Sanders is strongly in favor of ending felony disenfranchisement and restoring the right to vote to people in prison. Senator Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang support rights restoration post-incarceration.

 
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