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Lance Wissinger (left) and Neil Volz shake hands after turning in their voter registration forms in Fort Myers, Fla., in January. Both have felony records but had their voting rights restored under an amendment passed in November 2018.

Advocates challenge Florida law placing restrictions on felons' voting rights

What had been hailed as a major victory for those who favor restoring voting rights for convicted felons has now become a legal battle over exactly how that process should work.

On Friday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that requires those seeking to recover their voting rights to first pay all fines and fees that they owe. In swift order, voting and civil rights groups then filed legal action seeking to block the requirement.

Last fall, voters in Florida passed by a wide margin a state constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to Floridians "after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation."

In signing the bill requiring payment before voting rights restoration, DeSantis said the amendment restored rights "without regard to the wishes of the victims."

"I think this was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders," DeSantis wrote. The amendment excluded people convicted of murder or sexual offenses but covers, DeSantis pointed out, those convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery and kidnapping.

Advocates estimate more than 1 million Floridians could have their voting rights restored because of the amendment.

Those filing suit in federal court in Florida to block the law – including the Campaign Legal Center, Brennan Center for Justice, ALCU of Florida and NAACP Legal Defense Fund – claim it discriminates on the basis of wealth and constitutes a modern-day poll tax.

"Over a million Floridians were supposed to reclaim their place in the democratic process, but some politicians clearly feel threatened by greater voter participation," said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Voting Rights Project.

"They cannot legally affix a price tag on someone's right to vote," Ebenstein said in a statement released when the lawsuit was announced.

The legislation signed by the governor does allow felons to ask a judge to waive the fees or fines or convert them to community service hours. In order to waive restitution, the victim must sign off or could also allow it to be converted to community service.

Several reports say court records show ex-felons who have completed their prison sentences in Florida owe hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid fines and penalties.

Some states, like Washington, allow ex-felons to vote while they pay off their fines.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a trio of democracy reform bills this week.

California governor signs three political reform bills

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law on Tuesday three democracy reform bills focused on local redistricting, voting access and campaign contributions.

The first piece of legislation prohibits partisan gerrymandering at the local level by establishing criteria for cities and counties to use when adjusting district boundaries. While California is the largest state to use an independent redistricting commission to draw its congressional and state district maps, local districts did not have the same regulations.

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Gov. Ralph Northam used his executive authority to restore voting rights for felons, noting that Virginia is among the states that permanently strips such rights after a felony conviction.

Virginia governor restores voting rights to over 22,000 felons

More than 22,000 Virginians with felony convictions have regained the right to vote thanks to executive actions taken by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam since he took office in January 2018, his office announced this week.

In a statement, Northam's office said he has so far restored the civil rights of 22,205 people who had been convicted of felonies and have since completed their sentences. Those civil rights include the right to vote as well as the right to serve on juries, run for public office and become a notary public.

Northam previously announced in February that nearly 11,000 convicted felons had their voting rights restored under his watch.

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