Voting Rights Getting Closer for Felons
TAMPA, FL (June 1, 2020) — Ten Hillsborough County residents who have served their time but can’t afford to pay old fines and court costs are set to regain their right to vote during an emotional and historic court appearance Tuesday..... with Judge Catherine M. Catlin..... as part of a special court schedule.
The Voting Rights Docket aims to fulfill the promise of Florida’s Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences and are working to reintegrate into society. Amendment 4 passed with an overwhelming 65% support from voters in 2018 but has not been implemented across the state due to confusion caused by a 2019 law passed by the state Legislature. Last week, a federal judge concluded that much of the law was unconstitutional because it discriminated against people who could not afford to pay outstanding court costs.
The purpose of Hillsborough’s Voting Rights Docket is to provide a path to restoring voting rights for people who cannot afford to pay those costs but are otherwise eligible to have their right to vote restored.
“The idea that Amendment 4 only applies to people who can afford it is unfair, unacceptable, and un-American,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said. “It’s wrong to deny people the right to vote based on how much money they have. We can’t have two classes of citizens: those who can afford the right to vote and those who can’t.”
Tuesday’s History-Making Event
The 10 returning citizens on Tuesday’s Voting Rights Docket have completed all their prison or probation time but cannot afford to pay old financial obligations connected with their cases. That debt alone is keeping them from voting. At Tuesday’s hearings, Judge Catlin will review their financial situations and determine whether they are unable to pay—removing that final roadblock to voting.
The 10 individuals have already had their cases reviewed by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the Office of Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt, and will have their new statuses recorded by Hillsborough Clerk of the Court Pat Frank—all of which have been instrumental in making the Voting Rights Docket a reality. Hillsborough may have as many as 116,000 residents eligible to have their rights restored; Tuesday’s 10 are just the beginning.
“The goal we all share for people who’ve served their time is for them to successfully re-enter society. Research shows returning citizens are less likely to reoffend when they are able to vote. Tuesday’s Voting Rights Docket strengthens democracy and makes our community safer,” Warren said.
Tuesday is the first time a Florida court will use a process like this to restore voting rights: bringing forward a group of returning citizens, reviewing their financial situations, and determining that they cannot afford to pay. Their debts will not disappear; any money will still be owed to the court system—but after Tuesday, it will no longer keep them from the most precious part of our democracy: voting.
Important Recent Rulings
Rulings by two different federal courts have now clarified Amendment 4: former felons who have otherwise completed every part of their sentences can’t be stopped from voting only because they cannot afford to pay old fines and court costs.
Last week, Federal Judge Robert Hinkle outlined a new process that should make it even simpler for returning citizens to vote. However, Judge Hinkle’s process could still be challenged, so leaders in Hillsborough will move forward with the process they developed over the past several months to bring returning citizens before a judge to clearly and unambiguously have their rights restored.
Voting Rights Facts
Before Amendment 4 passed, Florida was one of only three states to permanently strip voting rights from anyone convicted of a felony.
Florida is estimated to have nearly 1.7 million people unable to vote (or “disenfranchised”) due to a felony conviction.
Those 1.7 million people represent more than 10% of Florida’s voting-age population and account for 27% of all disenfranchised people in America.
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