A federal trial began this week over felons’ voting rights in Florida. Two years ago, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative allowed many felons to regain the right to vote. This “Amendment 4” garnered more than sufficient support among Floridians to change the state constitution.
Its passing allowed enfranchisement for felons who had completed their sentences. But these rights are in question once again, and the debate has made it all the way to federal court.
The confusion arises from an interpretation of the amendment’s wording — specifically, the phrasing “completion of all terms of sentence,” which the Florida Senate interpreted to include payment of all fines. This interpretation means that felons with outstanding court-ordered fines are still barred from suffrage.
A lawsuit quickly arose from 17 hopeful voters who claim that they are indigent, and therefore completely unable to repay their fines. They allege that this requirement amounts to a violation of a number of amendments to the US Constitution, namely the first, fourteenth and twenty-first, because it disproportionately affects people of color and robs citizens of their freedom of speech, among other things, because they are genuinely unable to pay.
According to National Public Radio, the case is further complicated by the fact that Florida has a poor track record of documenting payments and amounts owed. Several of the plaintiffs claim that they are unable to access reliable information about the amount they still owe the court.
The case has escalated to a federal court of appeals where proceedings began Monday. Currently, thirty-six states require voters with felonies to complete their sentences and pay all fines before regaining access to the ballot box.