News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Clarence Singleton registers to vote under a new Florida law allowing convicted felons to regain their voting rights. This summer Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that requires felons to first pay all outstanding fines and fees, prompted several lawsuits claiming discrimination.

Expert: Law blocks most Florida felons from regaining voting rights

The new law requiring felons in Florida to pay all their fines and court fees before getting their voting rights restored would leave about 80 percent of them unable to register, according to research that is part of a legal challenge to the law.

Professor Daniel Smith, chairman of the University of Florida political science department, also found that black convicts would be more likely to be left on the sidelines during elections than white convicts.

Smith submitted his testimony on behalf of several convicted felons who would be blocked from restoring their voting rights as well as the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.

Nearly two-thirds of Florida voters supported an amendment passed last November to restore convicted felons' voting rights. But on June 28, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation requiring repayment as a condition of registering to vote.

Within days several lawsuits were filed. They have been combined, and a hearing is set for Oct. 7 on the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the financial requirements.

The suits claim that the requirement to pay fines and fees is tantamount to an unconstitutional poll tax, something that was used to prevent black people from voting in many states until the 1960s. They also claim that it violates the Voting Rights Act because black and Hispanic citizens would be disproportionately affected.

Plaintiff Kelvin Jones, a 46-year-old black man who lives in Hillsborough County, owes more than $50,000 in fines and court costs. He is disabled and unable to work, making it impossible to pay the money or to hire an attorney to ask that the fines be converted to community service. Even if that were to happen, his disability prevents him from doing the community service.

Smith emphasizes throughout his filing that the conclusions he draws are only estimates because no statewide database is available showing how many convicted felons still owe fines or fees. Nevertheless, using data from 48 of Florida's 67 counties, Smith estimates only about 20 percent of the more than 375,000 people with felony convictions owe neither fines nor fees and therefore could have their voting rights restored.

By extrapolating his findings to cover the entire state, Smith estimates that 8 percent of the more than 140,000 black felons who have finished their sentences have paid off all the fines, while 13.5 percent of nearly 180,000 white convicts have no outstanding fees and fines and therefore are eligible to regain the vote.

Shortly after the law passed, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the driving force behind passage of the amendment, announced a fundraising campaign to help convicts pay off their fines. The goal was to raise $3 million.

Meanwhile, officials in Miami announced a plan that would allow felons who still owe fines and fees to petition the court to modify their sentences, including converting some or all of what they owe into community service.

News. Community. Debate. Levers for better democracy.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter.

Big Picture
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

During his State of the Union address this year, President Trump said he would stonewall the legislative process if members of Congress don't play ball, writes Neal.

A year of broken standards for America’s democracy

Neal is federal government affairs manager at R Street Institute, a nonpartisan and pro-free-market public policy research organization.

The term "democratic norms" has become a misnomer over the last year. America's governing institutions are undermined by elected officials who dishonor their offices and each other. Standards of behavior and "normal" processes of governance seem to be relics of a simpler time. Our democracy has survived thus far, but the wounds are many.

Free speech and free press have been the White House's two consistent whipping posts. Comments such as "I think it is embarrassing for the country to allow protestors" and constant attacks on press credibility showcase President Trump's disdain for the pillars of democracy. Traditional interactions between the administration and the press are no longer taken for granted. Demeaning, toxic criticisms have become so common that they're being ignored. As the administration revokes critics' press passes and daily briefings are canceled, normalcy in this arena is sorely missed.

Keep reading... Show less

The founders of Register2Vote, Madeline Eden and Jeremy Smith, preparing registration information for mailing in Texas last year.

After successful Texas debut, tech-based voter registration platform goes national

Having had remarkable success at signing people up to vote in Texas last year, an Austin group of activists is expanding its pilot program into a full-blown national effort to overcome the sometimes ignored first hurdle for people in the voting process — registration.

"There are millions of voters who are registered who don't get out to vote," said Christopher Jasinski, director of partnerships for Register2Vote. "But the unmeasured part of the pie is the actual number of unregistered voters."

Keep reading... Show less