Florida passed an amendment in 2018, promising to restore voting rights for over a million Floridians with felony convictions. But that hope turned to confusion soon after.
The state Legislature followed up with a law clarifying that in order to get their voting rights back, felons needed to pay off all fines and fees related to their convictions. Hundreds of millions of dollars in fines are owed across the state, including $278 million in Miami-Dade County alone.
But the same law also offers a way out.
It allows the courts to modify the original criminal sentences to "no longer require completion" of things that were originally required. Under that law, money owed can be waived or lowered, and other requirements like community service hours can be reduced.
Now, the implementation is playing out in very different — and partisan — ways across the state. In counties under Democratic control, more people are getting their voting rights back. And in counties under Republican control, many potential voters are missing out.
On an afternoon in November, 17 people from across Miami-Dade County gathered in a Miami courtroom to have their voting rights restored. The hearing would be an early indication that party politics are playing a role in how a controversial state law is being rolled out.
They waited to receive a document from the court that would clear them of the only obstacle that stood between them and the voting booth: a declaration from the court that they no longer owed money for their crimes and they could now register to vote.
"I feel excited about moving forward in life," said Cynthia Cray, who hadn't cast a ballot in 10 years, ever since she was convicted of a felony.
Cray filled out a voter registration form on the spot and vowed that her voice would be heard.
"We got Donald Trump in that presidency. We can't keep having that foolishness. I vote because I don't want another Trump," she said.
Andre Williams hadn't cast a ballot since he voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
"The next election is gonna be fun. ..." he said. "Changes are going to be made. Donald Trump? ... I'll put it like this: You send your own companies into bankruptcy, you won't send this country into bankruptcy."
Out of the four counties across the state that have launched similar programs, every one of them is Democratic-leaning. Those include Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties, which together include more than a third of the state's total population. All of those counties voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and for Democrat Andrew Gillum in the 2018 governor's race.
There is no corollary for Republican-leaning counties.
"I think the effect certainly could be dramatic," said Kathryn DePalo-Gould, a political science professor at Florida International University. "Some of these other counties, including some of these very, very red counties who had huge turnouts for Trump in 2016, could be missing out on some of these felons."
The first county to fully roll out its process for restoring the voting rights of people with felony convictions was Miami-Dade. In a July press conference, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, Public Defender's Office, Clerk of Courts and the 11th Judicial Circuit Courts jointly announced how the new process would be carried out.
In collaboration, the different parts of the government would help identify people who are too poor to pay their outstanding debts. Once identified, the people's cases would be fast-tracked through the court, upon which time they would be given other options to payment. Meanwhile, they would be issued court orders stating their sentence has been completed, granting them the right to vote.
"Those who can pay should pay, and those who cannot can work out something else, like community service hours," Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said at the time. "It is not a waiver."
"At the end of the day, it's the law"
Before the provision allowing courts to waive or reduce fees, some activists likened the law to a "poll tax."
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, led by executive director Desmond Meade, helped get Amendment 4 on the ballot in 2018 to address those concerns.
The section only got written into the statute because of Republicans Rep. Jamie Grant and Sen. Jeff Brandes, in addition to a push from Democrats, Meade said.
"When the Legislature first introduced their legislation, we did not cry foul, we did not point fingers, we did not do anything to create a vibe," he said. "Rather, what we did is we rolled up our sleeves and we went into the offices of Republican legislators that stood with us as we engaged with the Legislature to make sure that the initial legislation that was introduced was fixed and got closer to the will of the people."
The result was something Meade said his group could work with and expand upon. "Make no mistake about it — that this will be rolled out in every judicial circuit in the state of Florida, because at the end of the day, it is the law," said Meade.
Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez reiterated that the process he helped develop is "following the plain language of the statute," and that the result could mean many new potential voters gaining access to the ballot box.
"The estimate for Miami-Dade County is that there are about 150,000 people — that's not just cases, that's people — that will qualify under this process," he said.
Martinez acknowledged it will be difficult getting in touch with everyone who might qualify for the process and said that some people who qualify might still have some other requirements — like owing money for restitution — that could still prevent them from being eligible to vote.
State Rep. Grant said he was frustrated that no Republican-leaning counties have developed a process for waiving financial obligations and granting voting rights to people with felony convictions.
"I mean, I didn't create the waivers not to be used," Grant said.
But Grant also said that the fact that only Democratic counties are using the provision absolves him of much of the criticism he faced when writing and debating, and then later passing, the state law. Activists and some Democrats suggested that he was creating a racist poll tax to make it harder for poor Floridians to cast votes in a way that would benefit the Republican Party.
"If I'm trying to suppress the vote, and if I am Jim Crow Jamie, why did I create the waivers that Democrats have been turning around and using? Which one is it?" Grant said. "If what the effect of what I passed flips the state blue — so be it, I'm good with that. I did my job."
At the same time, Grant cast doubt on the legality of how the process is playing out in Hillsborough County, which he represents. There, State Attorney Andrew Warren has started a process that will waive fines and fees that are owed only in connection with the right to vote — but that money can still be sent to collections.
"He doesn't know what he is doing," Grant said. "When he says that he's going to waive the obligation for the purpose of voting, but it's not going to affect the amount of money that the returning citizen owes government, or it's not going to affect the amount of money that the government collects from returning citizens, what he is doing is promising to violate state law."
That owed money would have to be waived entirely under the new law, argued Grant.
"An issue of fairness"
Warren told WLRN that the process in Hillsborough was methodically developed in close coordination with other parts of the local government, including the 13th Judicial Circuit of Courts, in order to make sure it was in compliance with state law. The program took into account a federal court ruling in a lawsuit related to SB 7066, the law authored by Grant.
"Our office carefully developed a process with local judicial partners to implement Amendment 4 as the voters wanted in accordance with state and federal law," Warren said. "We are committed to ensuring that the inability to pay outstanding fines and fees is not a roadblock to have voting rights restored. Any suggestion to the contrary reveals a troubling lack of understanding of our process, Amendment 4, and the U.S. Constitution."
In his ruling, federal District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote that plaintiffs cannot be barred from voting if they are "genuinely unable" to pay the money owed.
"Successful reentry and rehabilitation is a public safety issue, full stop. But more importantly this is an issue of fairness," Warren told WLRN.
"You can't have two classes of voters — people who can afford their right to vote and people who can't," Warren said. "At this point it's really just a determination that once someone has an inability to pay off their fines and fees, then they're eligible to have their right to vote restored."
A federal trial on the constitutionality of some parts of SB 7066 is scheduled for April. Warren said his office is aware that Hillsborough County might have to adjust its process depending on the outcome of that trial, or any laws passed during the 2020 legislative session.
In the meantime, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties are moving forward with their programs.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is accepting online applications from people who want to see whether they are able to receive help in the participating counties to get their voting rights restored.
The lack of participation in Republican-leaning Florida could be a political liability later this year, especially if local Republicans don't take efforts to help restore voting rights for white and Latino voters, said DePalo-Gould, the FIU professor.
"If they're missing out on those votes, you know — we have very close elections in the state of Florida," she said. "This could mean a huge difference going into 2020."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Florida, it used to be that someone who convicted a felony could never again vote - a lifetime ban. One year ago, though, a new constitutional amendment ended the ban. Then, though, the State Legislature put up a roadblock. They passed legislation requiring former felons to pay all their fines and fees before they could cast any vote.
Danny Rivero from member station WLRN reports there is a workaround to those rules, but it's being implemented only in Democratic parts of the state.
DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: There are 17 people here on the docket in a Miami courtroom, and every one of them is waiting to get their voting rights restored.
CYNTHIA CRAY: I feel excited about moving forward in life.
RIVERO: Cynthia Cray just got her voting rights back. She hasn't been able to cast a ballot since she was convicted of a felony 10 years ago. And she signed up to vote on the spot.
CRAY: I've been a convicted felon for so long, and we got Donald Trump in the presidency. We can't keep having that foolishness. I vote 'cause I don't want another Trump.
RIVERO: Scenes like this are taking place in Democratic strongholds around Florida. Cynthia Cray and the others in the courtroom technically haven't finished their court sentences as required under the new state law. But that law also lets courts declare someone's sentence complete, no matter whether they still owe money or community service time.
Here in Miami, prosecutors, public defenders and the local judges, who are all elected, agreed to work together to restore voting rights. Carlos Martinez is the top public defender in Miami-Dade County.
CARLOS MARTINEZ: We are following the plain language of the statute. And the plain language of the statute, as it is implemented in Miami-Dade County, will mean that the overwhelming majority of people who have felony convictions will qualify under this process.
RIVERO: Volunteer attorneys are fielding calls to help people with felonies take their cases through the system. Martinez says this could mean lots of new voters.
MARTINEZ: The estimate for Miami-Dade County is that there are about 150,000 people that will qualify under this process.
RIVERO: Miami-Dade County is one of just four counties with a new program to streamline the process of restoring voting rights. Those four counties include Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Tampa - more than a third of Florida's population. And they're all heavily Democratic in a key state for this year's presidential election.
KATHRYN DEPALO-GOULD: I think the effect certainly could be dramatic.
RIVERO: Kathryn DePalo-Gould is a political science professor at Florida International University. She says Republicans could suffer politically if GOP-leaning counties don't start speeding up the process of restoring voting rights.
DEPALO-GOULD: If they're missing out on those votes - you know, we have very close elections in the state of Florida - this could mean a huge difference going into 2020.
RIVERO: In fact, the law's author is frustrated that Republican parts of the state aren't doing more to restore voting rights. Jamie Grant is a Republican state representative from Tampa.
JAMIE GRANT: Yeah. I mean, I didn't create the waivers not to be used.
RIVERO: When Grant wrote the state law that made paying off fees and fines a condition for getting voting rights back, some activists called it a poll tax and claimed he wanted to keep people from voting.
GRANT: If I'm trying to suppress the vote and if I am Jim Crow Jamie, why did I create the waivers the Democrats are turning around and using? Which one is it? If the effect of what I passed switched the state blue, so be it. I'm good with that. I did my job.
RIVERO: The programs across the four participating counties are still in their infancy, but all four plan to be very active between now and the election in November.
For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami.
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