Four of five felons who would otherwise have been eligible to register to vote after passage of Florida's Amendment 4 are barred from casting a ballot because of a new state law opponents liken to a poll tax. And a disproportionate share of those would-be voters are black.
Those are the findings of a preliminary study conducted by a University of Florida professor for civil liberty groups suing Gov. Ron DeSantis after he signed into law Senate Bill 7066.
That law requires felons whose voting rights were thought to have been restored through the constitutional amendment to have paid all fines, fees and court-ordered financial restitution before they can register to vote.
The study, conducted by UF political science chairman Daniel A. Smith, is based on July data supplied by 48 of the state’s 67 counties and from the state Department of Corrections. The two largest counties captured in the study are Palm Beach and Orange.
The state’s two most populous counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, are not yet part of the study, which was submitted Aug. 2 as expert testimony on behalf of several groups including the ACLU of Florida and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Smith, who has researched electoral politics for two decades, was limited by the difficulty of obtaining data statewide.
Nonetheless, he concluded that “there is little doubt that SB 7066 will severely limit the ability of eligible Floridians with a past felony conviction to be able to register to vote.”
The new law, Smith found, is particularly effective in snuffing out the voting rights of black felons.
“In my opinion, it is clear ... black individuals who have otherwise met all the terms of their felony convictions are significantly less likely to be able to gain voting rights under SB 7066, as compared to similar white individuals,” Smith wrote.
Blacks twice as likely to owe
The state has no centralized, publicly available database that would allow it to know who will be affected by the fee required of the new law.
Smith used publicly available data to build such a database. He found 375,256 felons in 48 counties who were no longer in custody and who had not committed murder or a felony sex crime, meeting the broad eligibility for voting rights restoration laid out in the November 2018 constitutional amendment.
Of those, 66,108 had paid their fines, fees and court-ordered financial restitution. The remaining 309,148, about 82 percent, are barred from voting because they have not satisfied their financial obligations, the study found.
Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said the findings are “shocking, not that they are surprising.”
He added: “We had been saying that the bill would be much more sweeping in its impact than the advocates claimed. It is a travesty and a tragedy that we at the ACLU had to do this research because the state refused to do it themselves.”
Smith also found that white felons were more likely than black felons to have paid all of their fines, fees and court-ordered restitution. White felons were nearly twice as likely as black felons to owe no fines, fees or court-ordered restitution.
Most felons of both races, Smith found, owed between $500 and $5,000.
He wrote that he could not fully extrapolate his preliminary findings to the nearly 1.5 million felons estimated to be awaiting restoration of their voting rights because that larger number hasn’t been filtered for those convicted of murder or sex crimes.
But if the trends he found hold true, the number of those blocked by SB 7066 could top 1 million, he wrote.
Governor fights suit
Multiple lawsuits, including the ACLU’s suit, argue that SB 7066 is an unconstitutional poll tax that, like the infamous practice of Southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War, blocks those of limited financial means from voting.
Opponents also say it thwarts the will of Amendment 4, approved by 65 percent of Florida voters as they sought to make it easier for felons to regain the right to vote.
In signing SB 7066 into law, DeSantis said the fact that Amendment 4 restores voting rights to some violent felons without regard to the wishes of the victims is “a mistake” he would not want to compound by “bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders.”
Lawyers for the governor have filed to have the ACLU’s suit dismissed, arguing that “state courts should say what state law is.”
DeSantis also has asked the state Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on the question of whether felons must pay their fines and fees.
“The Governor has the duty to implement both the amendment and the law, which must be done appropriately,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, the governor’s director of communications wrote in an email to The Palm Beach Post. “That is why he is asking the Florida Supreme Court to provide an opinion on this matter.”
Tight races, limited voting rights
The escalating legal battle will have broad political impact in a state known for paper-thin election margins.
DeSantis, for example, won his race for governor with a margin of 32,463 votes, about 0.4 percent of the 8.2 million ballots cast in the race. His predecessor, Rick Scott, was re-elected in 2014 by 64,145 votes, 1.1 percent of the nearly 6 million ballots cast.
Presidential races in Florida have also been close, and, with the state’s 29 electoral votes desperately coveted by both parties, any change in voting access here will impact the 2020 race.
The dispute already has garnered national attention, with columns and stories on the topic appearing in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Republicans in Florida and across the country have supported measures limiting access to the voting booth. Those measures have had a disproportionate impact on minorities, who tend to support Democrats.
In an investigation of Florida’s voting rights restoration system last year, The Palm Beach Post found that, as governor, Scott severely choked the system, making it far more difficult for felons to regain eligibility.
Scott restored the rights of twice as many whites as blacks and three times as many white men as black men. He also restored rights to a higher percentage of Republicans and a lower percentage of Democrats than any of his predecessors since 1971, The Post found.
Amendment 4 removed the governor’s arbitrary review to make it nearly automatic for most felons to regain their right to vote after serving time.
The amendment allows felons who did not commit murder or felony sex crimes to register to vote “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation.”
The amendment language says nothing about fines, fees and court-ordered financial restitution, but Republican legislators have interpreted the phrase “all terms of sentence” to include those financial obligations.
Minorities are over-represented among those who were incarcerated in the state’s prison system, and they are also over-represented among the poor, who are likely to struggle to pay the fines, fees and restitution required by SB 7066.
Democrats argue that Republicans are well aware of those realities and have crafted a series of barriers like SB 7066 that allow them to claim they aren’t targeting voters by race.
“The idea that they would be blissfully unaware of the impact of this is absurd,” Kubic said. “There is a very clear pattern that emerges, one that should not be a surprise to anyone, least of all our legislators in Tallahassee. It’s clear evidence of a racially discriminatory policy.