Felons’ Rights: Democrats Say Florida Legislature’s GOP Just ‘Does Not Want Certain People to Vote’


Perry Thurston and Jeff Brandes

Perry Thurston and Jeff Brandes

With days left before the legislative session ends Friday, the Senate sponsor of a proposal aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment on felons’ voting rights said he worked all weekend to reach what he called a compromise with his House counterpart.

But Senate Democrats are still opposed to the measure, which they believe creates onerous financial barriers to restoring voting rights for people who’ve already got the odds stacked against them.

For some Democrats, the Republican-dominated Legislature’s effort to implement the constitutional amendment hearkens back to racially motivated, Reconstruction-era policies aimed at keeping blacks from casting ballots.

“Florida does not want certain people to vote,” Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who is black, said Monday.

Lawmakers find themselves in the position of having to implement a constitutional change initiated by citizens because “we’re an ass-backward state,” Thurston said, adding that Florida is one of only three states that does not automatically restore voting rights to felons who are no longer incarcerated or have completed probation.

Republicans don’t want to make it easier for felons to get their voting rights back, Thurston said, adding, “This is the last thing they want to do.”

Thurston’s comments came as Senate Democrats spent more than an hour learning about the bill (HB 7089) and developing a strategy for when the legislation comes up on the Senate floor Tuesday.

The constitutional amendment, approved by voters in November, granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The proposal, which appeared on the ballot as Amendment 4, excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

For weeks, what constitutes “murder,” “felony sexual offense,” and completion of “all terms of their sentence” has caused consternation as Democrats and supporters of the amendment lashed out at the House’s version of the bill, which would require repayment of all fines, fees and restitution for felons to be eligible for the automatic restoration.

The House passed the bill last week after heavy debate and sent it to the Senate.

Over the past few weeks, Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who’s leading the issue in the Senate, has made a series of concessions in his version of the proposal, finally winning the support of one of the main groups behind the amendment late last week.

That version of the proposal would require full repayment of restitution, including restitution that’s been convertedto civil liens, but not other financial obligations — such as fees, fines or court costs — converted to civil judgments.

But hours after the Democrats’ huddle Monday, Brandes released proposed changes to the financial obligation requirements to more closely align with what the House has sought.

Under the proposed changes, felons would have to repay all restitution, and would also have to pay all fees and fines ordered by the court, not including “any fines, fees, or costs that accrue after the date the obligation is ordered as part of the sentence.”

The financial obligations would be considered completed if they are paid in full, if a victim “forgives” the restitution, or if  felons participate in a yet-to-be-created program that would allow them to perform community service in lieu of payment.

“I spent the weekend talking to judges, talking to defense attorneys, talking to prosecutors across the political spectrum, trying to understand the meaning and the actual practice of how they implement this in their courtrooms and with their clients,” Brandes, who has long advocated for criminal-justice reforms, told The News Service of Florida.

He said his proposed revamp of the measure “clearly complies with Amendment 4,” and includes clear definitions of the three contentious issues. His proposal also “provides a pathway” to clear up financial obligations, as well as guidance on how to move forward.

“The state needs a piece of legislation. It needs a bill, and it needs something on the books. The last thing we want is nothing on the books and courts deciding how this plays out, because it could be much more arduous than what the Legislature’s come up with,” Brandes said.

Prosecutors, clerks of court and state and local elections officials have asked lawmakers to provide guidance on how to interpret the amendment.

But Senate Democrats are split on whether the constitutional amendment needs the Legislature to act, with many of them believing the ballot measure was self-executing.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a North Miami Beach Democrat who is a former prosecutor, intends to try to amend the bill, which will almost certainly be challenged in court if the Legislature approves it.

“The word ‘sentence’ is going to have three different interpretations — that interpretation from the Legislature, that interpretation from the Florida Supreme Court, or that interpretation from the secretary of state, who is a proxy for the attorney general,” Pizzo said in an interview Monday.

Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, opposed the constitutional amendment, Pizzo pointed out.

Pizzo met Monday with Desmond Meade and Neil Volz, “returning citizens” who work for one of the political committees that backed Amendment 4, to explain Brandes’ proposed changes.

“The reason why it’s very prudent to participate in this process is I think we have a decent chance that the Florida Supreme Court would honor the work of the Legislature to a large extent,” Pizzo said.

The Supreme Court could “honor” a “good deal,” or could “bless” a “really draconian” measure Democrats didn’t participate in creating, he said.

“I want them to bless the best possible deal that we can get,” he said.

But like Thurston, Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat who is black, grew heated Monday as he gave fellow Democrats a history lesson.

Florida’s law requiring felons to get clemency in order to vote “was put in place to make sure that a judicial system that already disproportionately affected black and brown people would hurt them on the back end, that they wouldn’t be able to vote,” Braynon said, his voice rising.

“It was created to make sure that black men couldn’t vote. (I’m) keeping it real…. My narrative starts from Reconstruction, which was when this law was created,” he went on. “To me, I don’t think this law should be around, just like I don’t think slavery should be around.”