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Floridians voted to enfranchise felons, but GOP plans new restrictions

Florida legislators are moving to minimize the impact of last fall's decision by the voters to restore voting rights to felons in the nation's third largest state.

The Republicans who dominate the state House began advancing legislation Tuesday that would require felons to pay all outstanding court fees and fines before they may go to the polls.

Critics say the move could block more than 80 percent of the 1.4 million Floridians who were supposed to be eligible to register starting this year.

Reporting by WLRN in Miami found that, in the last five years, over $1 billion in felony fines were issued but only 19 percent were paid, while the state association for court clerks deemed 83 percent of those fines to have "minimal collections expectations."

Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York took to Twitter to label the legislation "a poll tax by any other name." Its Republican authors disputed that characterization and said their effort was to live – albeit strictly – with the terms the voters set.

But the constitutional amendment, approved in November by 65 percent of voters, makes no mention of restitutions. It says voting rights are to be restored after former felons "complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation." Excepted are those convicted of "murder or sexual offenses."

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The bill would classify every felony with any kind of sexual component as a disqualifying "sexual offense," including operating an adult entertainment store too close to a school.

It was approved by committee Tuesday and now goes to the full House, where the GOP holds a 71-46 edge. Republicans hold a solid majority in the state Senate as well, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled his support for the legislation.

"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," Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News. "It's an affront to the Florida voters."

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