May 20, 2019
After much debate, lawmakers passed a measure requiring people with felony convictions to pay all court-ordered restitution, fines and fees before they are allowed to vote. Democrats and civil rights advocates argue that this financial requirement is a new “poll tax” that goes against the spirit of Amendment 4, under which voters overwhelmingly approved restoring voting rights to individuals upon completion of all terms of their felony sentence. Republicans argued that all financial obligations imposed by a judge are part of the felony sentence and need to be paid before being eligible to vote. Judges often turn restitution, fines and fees into a lien which converts the debt from a criminal to a civil matter. The new legislation states that financial obligations converted into civil liens must still be paid unless an individual petitions a judge to have the lien waived or converted to community service, or the victim dismisses the repayment of restitution.
According to Vox, there is no single entity that tracks Florida’s system of fines, fees and restitution. Amendment 4 advocates argue that individuals will be unclear on the total amount they are required to repay or even how election officials will track who is eligible to register to vote. In addition, this will create an extra burden on the court system to hear all the waiver applications.
Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019. Over 2,000 people with felony convictions registered to vote within the first three months of 2019 (a 99% increase over the last two non-general election years), reports the Brennan Center for Justice. Of the people with felony convictions registered this year, 44% self-identified as black. The report found that this newly registered group make $15,000 a year less on average compared to the general voting population. Advocates say this means the financial requirements imposed by the new legislation will create a substantial barrier to rights restoration and disproportionately impact African Americans.
The bill now goes to Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who did not support Amendment 4 and previously called for lawmakers to pass additional standards for implementation.
Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Brad Zaun, denied a vote for a proposed constitutional amendment to expand voting rights to people who have completed their felony sentence, effectively blocking the bill from advancing this year. The legislation illustrates how Iowa Republicans are split on the issue of felony disenfranchisement reform, with the Republican-controlled House having overwhelmingly passed the bill on a 95-2 vote. Sen. Zaun stated that he rejected the bill because it didn’t provide enough language around who would be eligible for rights restoration and what individuals would have to do to become eligible. He said he expects to revisit the issue again next year.
“I am disappointed in today’s setback, but I will not give up the fight for Iowans who deserve a second chance,” Republican Governor Kim Reynolds said in a statement. She called for the amendment in January and had been working to convince lawmakers to support the measure. Despite this bill being one of her key legislative priorities, Gov. Reynolds said she will not issue an executive order restoring voting rights because she believes voters should make that decision.
Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation requiring voter eligibility information to be provided to people with felony convictions upon release from prison. Washington state prohibits individuals in prison and on felony probation or parole from voting. The new legislation does not expand the state’s current felony disenfranchisement laws, but “makes sure that the current law actually is implemented in the manner that we all wanted it to be implemented when felons get their voter rights back,” said the bill’s sponsor, Senator Manka Dhingra. The Department of Corrections is now required to notify incarcerated individuals of the process to receive provisional and permanent rights restoration as part of their release paperwork. Individuals will be given voter eligibility and registration information, both in person and electronically.
Senator Bernie Sanders recently faced pushback when he said that people in prison, including the Boston marathon bomber, should be allowed to vote. Sen. Sanders defended his position in a USA today op-ed, where he wrote: “If we are serious about calling ourselves a democracy, we must firmly establish that the right to vote is an inalienable and universal principle that applies to all American citizens 18 years and older. Period.”
Restoring the right to vote to people in prison is “the next significant phase of this movement for disenfranchisement reform,” said Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project. “And this is the highest-profile stage where we’ve seen this issue get any attention.”
Several other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates weighed in on the debate, but no one joined Sen. Sanders in supporting voting rights for people in prison. Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro suggested that people convicted of nonviolent offenses should perhaps be allowed to vote while incarcerated. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he believed rights should be restored after incarceration. Both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris were undecided and said that there should be more of a conversation around voting while incarcerated.
In a recent op-ed, Mauer defended Sen. Sanders’s position: “When this nation was founded as an experiment in democracy two centuries ago it was a very limited experiment. Women weren’t permitted to vote, nor African Americans, or people who were poor or illiterate. Over time evolving public sentiment has enfranchised all those groups, and we now look back on that moment with a great deal of national embarrassment. It’s now long past time to remedy the exclusion of the last remaining group of citizens who are denied the right to vote.”