Lawmakers battle over Amendment 4 bills

The League of Women Voters wants to register as many returning citizens as possible despite legislation being debated that may set restrictions.
Photo submited by Titilayo Okuwa

Florida residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of Amendment 4 in November, empowering former felons with the right to vote. Now Florida legislators are trying to figure out how to put the amendment into law.

The amendment states clearly that “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of the sentence including parole or probation.”

Both the House and Senate are grappling with bills to further define the amendment. House Bill 7089 passed through a subcommittee under the supposed grounds that it is an improvement on Senate Bill, 7086.

Rep. James Grant, a Republican who chairs the Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said that the bill is the best attempt to uphold complete integrity while implementing Amendment 4.

“Integrity and commonsense in upholding exactly what was put in front of the voters are what bind us,” Grant said. “Restitution is actual damages, you don’t get restitution on accident.”

The House bill introduced a court’s waiver and payee waiver that can substitute for full payment of financial obligations imposed at the time of sentencing. The restitution component was inserted by lawmakers as a caveat to the terms outlined in the proposed amendment.

Rep. Josh Geller, a Democrat from South Florida, says the bill is an improvement on the Senate’s version of the legislation, but there is still a long way to go.

“I think that the strike-all in some regards is moving in the right direction,” Geller said. “I don’t think the voters had every one of those things in mind.”

The companion bill in the Senate includes payment of fees as a requirement, and made no attempt to include a waiver. It also includes a clause that would expand the definition of felony offenses to include a larger group of convicted felons.

Both bills add elements to the amendment that were not originally specified to voters. This includes language that would effectively make getting a large number of returning citizens registered to vote much more difficult.

“I want to acknowledge there are places that we are better than the Senate,” Geller said, “This is not something that’s the strict language of Amendment 4, this requires some judgment to be made.”

Many Florida citizens believe the financial obligations that they are placing in the bills will disenfranchise a significant number of citizens.

Barbara Licht, a seven-year volunteer with the League of Women Voters, says the amendment is self-executing and a bill is not necessary.

“We felt that it would be more of an administrative decision,” Licht said. “The vast majority of returning citizens owe more money than they can afford to pay”

Since legislation has not been passed, there is nothing explicitly stopping returning citizens from attempting to register to vote if they believe they are eligible. Licht says her top concern is getting people to try.

“Register, vote, if in fact you are taken off the voter rolls later then so be it,” Licht said. “At this point in time there is nothing official that says you cannot register or vote as long as you owe a penny."