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Disenfranchisement News: Florida GOP pushes bills to limit voter eligibility under Amendment 4

April 04, 2019
Republican lawmakers in Florida push bills to limit voter eligibility under Amendment 4, legislation would restore voting rights after incarceration in Minnesota, and more in our latest Disenfranchisement News.

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Republican lawmakers in Florida push bills to limit voter eligibility under Amendment 4

Republican lawmakers recently introduced legislation that limits the scope of Amendment 4 — which automatically restored voting rights to people convicted of a felony (except those convicted of murder and felony sex offenses) upon completion of all terms of their sentence. According to Florida voting rights advocates, completion of all terms “includes any period of incarceration, probation, parole and financial obligations imposed as part of an individual’s sentence.” Court fines and restitution may be imposed as part of a sentence. However, voting rights advocates argue that the various administrative “user fees” that may incur as a person’s case moves through the justice system are not tied to their sentence, and should not be a requirement in order to register to vote. Prior to Amendment 4, Florida only required people to pay restitution before applying for their voting rights. The Republicans’ proposed measures include a requirement for people to pay all financial obligations arising from their felony convictions, including fines and fees that had been converted into civil liens to allow indigent defendants to pay their debts over time.

Critics have called the new bill a modern “poll tax” that will negatively impact poor people with felony convictions. “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,” said Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the ACLU.

The House bill also has language to widen the definition of felony sex offense to include offenses such as prostitution or selling adult content near a school. Advocates argue that the definition of felony sex offense should be limited to individuals who are required to register as a sex offender.

Tight deadline to approve voting rights constitutional amendment in Iowa

A Senate subcommittee recently approved a proposed constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to all individuals who have completed their felony sentence. Governor Kim Reynolds called for the amendment in January and has been working to convince lawmakers to support the measure. The House overwhelmingly passed the proposal last week.

“Today’s strong bipartisan vote is a victory for Iowans who deserve a second chance,” Gov. Reynolds said in a statement after the House vote. “There’s a broad coalition of supporters behind this constitutional amendment, and I will continue working with members of the Iowa Senate to move the process forward, allowing Iowans a vote on this important issue.”

The measure needs to pass the full Senate committee by April 5th in order to meet the legislative deadline. Key Republican senators say it is unlikely the proposal will pass the Senate as currently written. Republican Senator Jake Chapman says language needs to be added so people convicted of certain crimes are not allowed to have their rights restored. 

If the measure passes the Senate this year, it then needs to be passed again by the full legislature in 2021 or 2022 to be placed on the ballot for a statewide vote. According to a recent poll, 64% of Iowans are supportive of restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentence. Twenty-nine percent were opposed.

People register to vote in Louisiana after new law takes effect

Thousands of people with felony convictions regained their right to vote under a new law that went into effect in March. The law expanded voter eligibility to anyone with a felony conviction who has not been incarcerated within the last five years, including individuals on probation or parole. Currently, the burden falls on the individual to alert their probation or parole officer that they are eligible to vote. The advocacy group, VOTE, has been coordinating efforts to educate people about the new law and putting up posters in probation and parole offices.

Three weeks after the law went into effect, over 50 people have sought to have their voting rights restored. “I’m sure we haven’t seen the full scope of the people coming in to see if they are qualified and if they are registering to vote,” said Louisiana Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick. Legislation has been prefiled for the next House session that could streamline the registration process and clarify how the law should operate.

Legislation would restore voting rights after incarceration in Minnesota

A bill to restore voting rights to people on community supervision is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled House. “These are people we say are fit to sit on a city bus with our grandparents, who are fit to walk in our neighborhoods, who are fit to be in the grocery store next to our children, but who we are saying are unfit to vote,” said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter at a press conference. “It is arbitrary, and there’s no good reason to say our communities are better off.”

The legislation is unlikely to be heard in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, there are signs of bipartisan support around shortening the state’s probation period, resulting in voting rights being restored sooner. Legislation HF 689 would cap probation supervision to five years except for those convicted of murder or sexual assault. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka says he is opposed to restoring voting rights to people on probation but is open to looking into reforming the state’s long probation periods.

Bill aims to streamline voting rights restoration and remove financial obligations in Tennessee

Tennessee’s felony disenfranchisement laws are among the strictest and most complex in the nation. The state is unique in prohibiting people with felony convictions from voting due to outstanding child support payments. A House panel recently passed a bill that would automatically restore voting rights to individuals who have completed their sentence, and remove the requirement that all outstanding legal financial obligations, including child support, be paid.

“We’ve put too many hurdles in place,” said Republican Rep. Michael Curcio, who is sponsoring the legislation. “We just felt like it was an injustice to couple the nonpayment of those fines and fees to your constitutionally protected right to vote.”

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