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Fla. House passes bill requiring felons to pay up before they can vote

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 4/25/2019 By Lawrence Mower and Emily L. Mahoney, Miami Herald
a close up of text on a black surface: "I voted" stickers in a June 2018 file image. © John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS "I voted" stickers in a June 2018 file image.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - After hours of debate, the Florida House on Wednesday passed along party lines its version of a bill implementing Amendment 4, which was supposed to restore the right to vote to more than a million former felons.

The 71-45 vote sets up a potential dispute with the state Senate over whether court fines, fees and restitution should be required before felons can vote.

The House bill requires all of those to be paid before a felon can vote.

The Senate bill requires restitution to be paid, but not court fees and fines if those have been converted to a civil lien, which often happens. It has yet to be heard on the Senate floor.

However it's resolved, the outcome could prevent thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of felons from voting, undermining the hope of the historic amendment.

Many owe fines, fees or restitution, and some owe so much that they'll never be able to vote.

And the cost to the state could be enormous. Florida has no system to track restitution, and creating one could cost millions of dollars.

As budget negotiations were underway Wednesday, the House was considering a proposal by the Senate that would grant $2 million to hire more people on the Florida Commission on Offender Review to help evaluate former felons' voter registration applications.

That commission will then provide that information to local supervisors of elections, said state Sen. Jeff Brandes.

"Obviously, the individual is responsible for determining whether they've completed all the terms of their own sentence," he said. "If they have questions, they should go to local supervisors of elections."

The creators of Amendment 4 have argued that the bill is self-implementing. The amendment restored the right to vote to felons who have completed "all terms of their sentence including parole or probation."

It did not mention fines, fees or restitution, but Republicans in the Legislature have used the supporters' own words to interpret it to include such costs.

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