‘I Can’t Afford It and I Never Will Be Able To’
Florida is poised to pass a law that imposes a ‘poll tax’ on thousands of formerly incarcerated people.
If 31-year-old Florida resident Erica Racz wants to vote, she might have to pay $57,688.
That’s the amount of court costs and fees she owes the state stemming from her felony drug conviction when she was 21 and several misdemeanors she racked up before her time in prison.
“I can’t afford that,” Racz told The Appeal. “I can’t even afford $1,200 of court fees, let alone that huge number. I’m in debt from student loans. I’m a single mother. I completely turned my life around, but I can’t afford it and I never will be able to.”
Racz testified before the Florida House in April as the legislature debated bills that would require people with felony convictions to pay off all fines, fees, court costs, and restitution before they would be eligible to regain their voting rights. On April 24, the House voted 71-45 along party lines its version of the legislation. The Senate is poised to vote on its version of the bill before Friday.
In November 2018, Racz was one of roughly 1.4 million people who call themselves “returning citizens” who regained the right to vote. On Election Day, 65 percent of Floridians approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to state residents with felony convictions except those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault.
Supporters of the amendment said there was no need for legislative action to enact it. But if the Senate approves the House’s legislation, hundreds of thousands of returning citizens may soon be barred from regaining their voting rights.
The House, the more conservative of the legislative chambers, drafted legislation that would significantly restrict the number of people eligible to regain their right to vote. The Senate meanwhile, proposed a bill that would only require the payment of restitution and not court fines and fees that have been converted to civil liens.
But this week, members of the Senate expressed willingness to adopt the House’s restrictions.
“It’s fair to say it encompasses the ideas by which they proposed this amendment, and publicly supported this amendment,” Senator Jeff Brandes told the Miami Herald about the House’s version of the legislation.
We are setting a bad precedent when it comes to the people of Florida trusting us to do what’s right.Shevrin Jones, Florida House Representative
According to a memo from the Sentencing Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, an estimated 40 percent of individuals who regained their rights had not completed restitution payment and another unknown but potentially large number of formerly disenfranchised people in Florida still owe fines and fees that would prevent them from regaining their right to vote. Almost none of them are expected to ever pay off those fines. As Slate reported, the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, a group that releases annual summaries, said that 83 percent of court fines levied between 2014 and 2018 had “minimal collections expectations.”
Neil Volz, the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said if the bill were to become law, it would undermine the amendment.
“Watching the debate and knowing that we could do better and that we could move our state forward in a more bipartisan way was disappointing to see,” Volz told The Appeal after the House vote.
Volz, a former Republican congressional staffer who worked with Democrats to pass Amendment 4, said it was especially concerning to see the House vote along party lines.
“What was so wonderful about Amendment 4 is that it was people-focused and community-focused and bipartisan, not partisan and ideological,” he said. “To see a debate go from where we were in November to where we were [the night of the House vote] was tough on the heart.”
Racz has felt a mix of emotions watching the passage of the amendment in November and fighting the legislature to preserve her rights.
“For so long, I didn’t feel like I belonged,” she said. “And then this day came that was like, ‘You guys can vote. You can feel normality again. You can make a difference. You have a reason to be here.’ And then it’s just gone. It’s heartbreaking. It’s scary.”
Democratic lawmakers criticized the bill. Senator Perry Thurston told News Service Florida he believes “Florida does not want certain people to vote.” During debate in the House last week, House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee said the legislation “attempts to undermine the people of this great state.” Representative Shevrin Jones also pointed to the more than 5 million Floridians who voted to restore rights.
“We are setting a bad precedent when it comes to the people of Florida trusting us to do what’s right,” he said.
But Republican Representative James Grant, who sponsored the bill, said the measure doesn’t disenfranchise anyone. He said people disenfranchised themselves when they chose to commit crimes.
In addition to the requirement that fines and fees are paid, the House version of the bill broadens the categories of crimes that would exclude someone from rights restoration. While the amendment said people convicted of felony sexual offenses would be excluded, the bill includes dozens of crimes in that category that voting advocates say should not be considered felony sexual offenses, like prostitution or the establishment of an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school.
The Senate bill could also broaden the definition of murder to include crimes like manslaughter, vehicular homicide, and attempted murder.
All together, the new restrictions on voting will affect a huge number of the 1.4 million people who thought they had regained their civil rights. Advocacy groups and Democrats in the legislature have said they expect to see a court challenge if the strict fines and fees requirement passes.
“I talk to people who are impacted by the fines and fees portion of this bill every day,” Volz said. “There are thousands of people in our state who would be impacted by where these lines are drawn.”