Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken the unusual step of asking his state’s Supreme Court to render an advisory opinion about whether the state’s up to 1.5 million felons have to pay all fines and fees imposed on them for their crimes before they become eligible to register to vote, the same subject dealt with in controversial legislation he recently signed into law.
Florida is viewed as a must-win state by both parties in next year’s presidential election, and the new legislation, which clarifies how a recent amendment to the state’s constitution is enforced, may affect voter turnout. University of Florida academic Daniel Smith estimates that fewer than 18 percent of felons no longer in custody or under supervision have satisfied outstanding fees and fines, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
The document the governor filed doesn’t ask the court to opine on the legislation itself.
In a formal petition dated Aug. 9 that was addressed to Chief Justice Charles T. Canady, DeSantis asked “whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’ under Article VI, section 4 of the Florida Constitution includes the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations namely fees, fines, and restitution ordered by the court as part of a felony sentence that would otherwise render a convicted felon ineligible to vote.”
The last gubernatorial request for an advisory opinion came six years ago when Rick Scott, a fellow Republican who is now a U.S. senator, asked for a ruling on Florida’s blind trust law.
DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066 on June 28. It requires felons to pay any outstanding court-ordered fines or restitution that were part of their sentence before regaining their right to vote. Hours after the bill was signed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and other organizations filed suit to block it, claiming it undermines Amendment 4, which received 64.55 percent support on Nov. 6, 2018.
The amendment restored the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they completed all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. But those convicted of murder or felony-level sexual offenses continue to be permanently barred from voting. Such individuals could still have their voting rights restored on a case-by-case basis by the governor and his Cabinet.
The ACLU and NAACP, which are seeking an injunction to block the new law, claim hundreds of thousands of Floridians with felonies could be harmed if their right to vote isn’t reinstated. They say many such individuals have completed their sentences but can’t afford to pay the fines and fees.
The new statue “will wreak havoc on election administration, apply unequally to similarly situated voters, lead to the erroneous deprivation of the right to vote and undermine confidence in Florida elections,” the groups stated in court papers.
DeSantis seemed to answer the criticism in his petition to the court.
“I, as governor of Florida, have the constitutional responsibility and duty to take care that the Constitution and laws of Florida are faithfully executed,” he wrote. “I will not infringe on the proper restoration of an individual’s right to vote under the Florida Constitution.”