01:02 - Source: CNN
Florida just gave felons their right to vote back
Washington CNN  — 

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will sign a bill that would require ex-felons in the state, who were granted the right to vote in a referendum last fall, to pay all financial obligations before they can head to the polls.

“I’ll sign it,” DeSantis told reporters Tuesday during a news conference at the University of Miami.

Critics of the bill had called on the governor to issue a veto and had likened the financial obligations to a “poll tax.” DeSantis, however, said Tuesday that the “idea that paying restitution to someone is equivalent to a tax is totally wrong.”

“The only reason you’re paying restitution is because you were convicted of a felony,” DeSantis said.

The Florida House passed the bill on a party-line vote on Friday, the last day of the legislative session, sending the measure to the governor’s desk.

DeSantis has 15 days from Friday to sign the bill. His office did not immediately respond to a CNN inquiry about when he plans to sign.

The bill restores voting rights for individuals who have completed all terms of their sentences – which includes fully paying restitution and fines or fees ordered by the court, not including fees racked up after sentencing.

In November, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, allowing convicted felons who complete all terms of their sentences, including parole or probation, the right to vote, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.

Soon after the referendum passed, DeSantis said the law was unclear as to how it should be implemented and called for the Florida Legislature to clarify questions raised.

Addressing the criticism from Democrats that the bill ignores Floridians’ wishes, DeSantis argued Tuesday that the Legislature had implemented Amendment 4 “as it’s written.”

“The amendment says, if you read it, that you have to complete your sentence. And I think most people understand you can be sentenced to jail, probation, restitution if you harm someone. You can be sentenced with a fine. People that bilk people out of money, sometimes that’s an appropriate sentence. That’s what the constitutional provision said,” DeSantis said.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo, however, called the bill an “ugly specter of the poll taxes that were enacted across the South” and argued that “history may view (DeSantis) as a man more in line with the times of Jim Crow” if he signs the bill.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a division of New York University School of Law that studies democracy and justice issues and helped draft Amendment 4, said Friday that it stands “ready to take action” if DeSantis signs the bill into law.

Under the bill, financial obligations are met when they’re paid in full. The bill allows those obligations to be converted to community service or for a victim or court to forgive restitution.

The fees and fines that felons are ordered to pay are wide-ranging but significantly high for individuals leaving prison, especially if they’re unemployed. They can range from a couple of hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, said Lisa Foster, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a group that aims to eliminate fees in the US justice system. In Florida, all the court charges that are unpaid after 90 days are referred to private debt collectors, who are allowed to add up to a 40% surcharge on the unpaid court debt, according to the Brennan Center.

Amendment 4 passed in November with nearly 65% of the vote, exceeding the 60% threshold required to become a law and restoring voting rights to about 1.4 million Floridians.

The addition of so many new voters could have an impact in a state whose elections are often decided by slim margins. An analysis conducted last fall by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald found Democratic and black voters were far more likely to have lost their voting rights because of felony convictions.

CNN’s Caroline Kelly and Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.