The holiday season is a good time to listen to what people have to say. It doesn’t cost a thing, but it acknowledges their presence and importance. The following holiday package of ideas comes mostly from people who believe returning citizens must regain their right to register to vote. Before you open the package, though, please accept some background information as necessary gift wrapping.
In Florida, where I live, the issue remains controversial even after Sunshine State citizens voted overwhelmingly to change their constitution on Nov. 6, 2018. The new constitutional provision replaced a lifetime ban on voting, letting returning citizens not convicted of murder or felony sex crimes register to vote after they complete all terms of their sentence imposed by a judge.
Therein lies the legal conundrum. A federal judge is sorting through lawsuits filed on behalf of returning citizens. Attorneys for 17 Florida residents argue they can register to vote after they finish their prison sentence, and complete parole or probation.
Not so, say the Republican governor and GOP-controlled state Legislature, which gave Florida SB 7066. The law, enacted about six months after voters changed their constitution, asserts all terms of a sentence include repayment of fees, fines and restitution imposed by a judge. The Florida Supreme Court is set to issue an advisory opinion on the meaning of the contested language. The court is expected to declare that completion of all terms of a sentence means returning citizens must repay fees, fines and restitution before they can register.
What’s more, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, in October, handed down an initial ruling in a federal lawsuit. He blocked the implementation of SB 7066, pending resolution of the case. A trial is set for April on a variety of issues, including allegations that the law violates the constitutional rights of poor people and people of color.
Hinkle, last fall, held that people can’t be prevented from registering to vote simply because they don’t have the means to repay fees, fines and restitution. But the decision only applied directly to the 17 returning citizens involved with that lawsuit. The voting rights of an estimated 1.4 million returning citizens, many of whom are poor, remain in legal limbo.
The decision by Hinkle has set in motion actions the Florida Department of State and Florida Legislature may take. Sarah Revell, the spokeswoman for Secretary of State Laurel Lee, says, “We will comply (with the ruling) and provide guidance to local supervisors of elections.” The Department of State oversees elections and works with the 67 county Supervisors of Elections who administer elections in their counties.
The state Legislature is also gearing up for action. Sen. Jeff Brandes, a leading GOP legislator, has said, “everything is on the table” when lawmakers convene in the new year, although he added it makes sense to act only after the April trial concludes. Brandes did not respond to my email request for more details.
What follows are comments from advocates and attorneys involved with the case. The comments deal with actions the Department of State and Florida Legislature can take to remain consistent with the “will of the people,” 64.55% of whom voted to change the Florida constitution.
You’ll also learn about singer John Legend appearing in court in Miami-Dade County recently. He watched as a judge modified sentences and thus restored voting rights for 20 citizens.
And you’ll hear from a returning citizen in a YouTube link provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’ll stay out of the way as much as possible; only adding information for context. Hopefully, this will result in a nice holiday package.
Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, says, “The (federal) court made it clear that those with an inability to pay off their legal financial obligations remain eligible to vote. Therefore, the Secretary of State needs to immediately: (1) issue clear guidance to all county election offices making them aware of the ruling; (2) clarify that the voter registration form in place prior to SB 7066’s passage…is sufficient for purposes of voter registration; and (3) take all affirmative steps to ensure that anyone with outstanding financial obligations who registers to vote is not subject to criminal prosecution given the confusion…that SB 7066 has created for returning citizens.”
Corey Goldstone, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, sees Judge Hinkle’s initial ruling as an important first step to voting rights restoration. Therefore, he says, “It is important for the secretary of state to act quickly to protect the likely hundreds of thousands of Floridians impacted by this order.”
Goldstone adds, “The state has options in how it sets up a process by which it puts in place an appropriate procedure through which an individual plaintiff may register and vote if otherwise qualified and genuinely unable to pay outstanding financial obligations.”
And he cites some ground rules Judge Hinkle established in October:
“The procedure must be timely. An eligible applicant that registers to vote by the deadline must be able to vote in the next election. The court made clear that an ‘ability to pay’ process that leaves eligible applicants waiting as elections pass them by is constitutionally insufficient. Thus, any process the state puts in place must ensure that genuine inability to pay can be ‘promptly addressed’.”
According to Goldstone, the guidelines imposed by the judge also mean “the procedure cannot be discretionary” and “Floridians cannot be required to risk prosecution in order to demonstrate the inability to pay. This problem arises because all voter registration forms require applicants to affirm their voter eligibility, which voters with outstanding fees cannot do until after they have demonstrated the inability to pay. As a practical matter, this means that the secretary will likely need to update the voter registration form…For the same reasons, the state should also provide a method by which those who are unsure if they have legal debt…are permitted to register to seek a determination of their eligibility.”
This last point refers to comments Judge Hinkle made at the fall hearing. He said the government’s system to determine who owes what is a mess and needs to be fixed.
Chiraag Bains, the director of legal strategies for Demos, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the federal lawsuit. In it, he stressed the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition negotiated a sentence modification provision with state lawmakers, which was included in SB 7066. Sentence modification is one way to allow returning citizens to overcome the SB 7066 requirement that they repay all fees and fines before they can register to vote.
According to the brief, “If the legal financial obligation payment requirement is ultimately upheld, FRRC expects (sentence modification) will significantly increase the number of returning citizens enfranchised by Amendment 4.”
In an email, Bains offers some ways the Florida Legislature can make the constitutional amendment and state law work better. He writes, “It could pass a law stating that legal financial obligations need not be completed in order for a person to be automatically re-enfranchised under Amendment 4. If the legislature did that, then any person who has finished their term of incarceration, probation, and parole would get their right to vote back.”
Bains adds, “The legislature could also create a process for people unable to afford their fines and fees to attest that they don’t have the ability to pay and to register to vote. That system would be easy to administer and would avoid punishing people for their poverty. Any system that required a complex ability-to-pay hearing likely would be disastrous; it would gum up the process and make it very burdensome for eligible citizens to complete what should be a simple and straightforward task: voter registration.”
In Miami-Dade County, some returning citizens are getting back their voting rights because of the sentence modification provision. A “rocket docket” created by the prosecutor, chief judge and public defender speeds the process along. This Miami Herald article tells about singer John Legend looking on as the system that once imprisoned people restored their voting rights through sentence modification, which may help about 150,000 returning citizens in that county alone.
The best way to end this article is to give you a link to a YouTube clip that features Rosemary McCoy. She is one of 17 plaintiffs who won her right to register to vote when Judge Hinkle made an initial ruling in October. McCoy spoke in this video before Hinkle made his decision.