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Florida Supreme Court Rules Convicted Felons Must Pay Fines To Vote

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This year, Florida will also be a popular stop on the campaign trail. It's a key swing state that could end up deciding the presidential election in November. If recent elections are any indicator, the margin of victory can be very narrow. That's why a political fight going on right now in Tallahassee is getting a lot of national attention. It involves Amendment 4, a measure approved by Florida voters in 2018 that aimed to restore voting rights to more than a million former felons who had completed their sentences.

But the story didn't end there. To bring us up to speed, we've called Ari Berman. He covers voting rights for Mother Jones, and he is the author of "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America."

ARI BERMAN: What happened in the spring of last year was the Florida legislature passed a bill that was signed by the governor that said that completion of your sentence meant that you had to pay all fines, fees and restitution associated with that sentence. And that was a problem for many ex-felons because a lot of people owe outstanding fines, fees and restitution. And they thought they were going to get their voting rights back, and now they might not be.

MARTIN: And can you just give us a sense of what these fines and fees are for? I mean, people charge you for getting locked up. You have to pay the costs of your incarceration. I mean, give us a sense of what's the scope with these fines and fees.

BERMAN: Yeah. Some of these fines and fees are a very large number. One woman in Florida owed $59 million in restitution when she was convicted of insurance fraud. And so she realizes that the law as written, she is probably never going to be able to vote. And that's why voting rights groups are calling this provision a modern-day poll tax - because it seems to condition the right to vote based on how much money you have and whether you can pay off all of the fines, fees and restitution associated with your sentence.

MARTIN: And there was news this week. Florida's Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion upholding the bill. What's the force of this advisory opinion? Why does this matter?

BERMAN: It matters because there's a lot of debate in Florida over what completion of your sentence means. I think when Amendment 4 passed in November 2018, it was commonly assumed that completion of your sentence meant that you had completed probation and parole, you had paid your debt to society and now you were eligible to vote.

What the Florida legislature said is that completion of your sentence meant that you had paid off all the financial obligations as well, which I think people weren't thinking about when they passed this ballot initiative. And basically, what the Florida Supreme Court said that the legislature's interpretation of Amendment 4 was correct - that, in fact, being able to vote under Amendment 4 means paying off all of the financial obligations relating to your sentence.

MARTIN: So the Florida Supreme Court issued this advisory opinion. What's the next step here?

BERMAN: The next step here is that a federal court ruled last fall that the state of Florida needs to create some sort of mechanism so that people that can't afford to pay off their fines, fees and restitution still can be able to vote. Now, that decision is being appealed. But really, the onus is still on the legislature in Florida to create some sort of mechanism so that people who can't afford to pay back their fines are able to vote.

The Florida legislature has not done this. But nonetheless, voting rights advocates are going to be both challenging the Amendment 4 restrictions in court, but they're also going to be lobbying the Florida legislature to make it clear that people aren't disenfranchised based on how much money they have or how much money they owe.

MARTIN: Is your working assumption here that this is intended to advantage Republicans? Is there a view that somehow these former felons would advantage Democrats? I mean, what do you think the real issue here is?

BERMAN: Well, 64% of Florida voters supported Amendment 4, so clearly, there was a lot of bipartisan support for this ballot initiative. That said, there's a disproportionate disenfranchisement in Florida of African Americans. Ten percent of Floridians can't vote because of a past felony conviction, but 1 in 5 African Americans can't vote in Florida because of a past felony conviction.

And if African Americans, who disproportionately identify with the Democratic Party - if they get the right to vote back, they could then decide to vote Republican officeholders out of office. I think there's a fear among Florida Republicans that an expansion of voting rights in the state may hurt them politically.

MARTIN: And when you - I presume you've posed this question to them. And what do they say?

BERMAN: They don't say that (laughter). They don't say it quite like that. I think what the governor of Florida tweeted on Thursday was very indicative. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, tweeted that voting is a privilege and that therefore the Supreme Court was correct in interpreting Amendment 4 in a very restrictive way.

And I think that really gets to the core argument. Do we view the right to vote as a fundamental right that should be expanded, that we should encourage people to participate? Or do we view it as a privilege that needs to be tightly maintained and restricted when necessary?

MARTIN: That's Ari Berman. He covers voting rights for Mother Jones, and he's the author of "Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America." Ari Berman, thank you so much for joining us.

BERMAN: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.