Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed off on a bill Friday requiring felons to pay off their financial obligations before regaining the right to vote, a tactic many critics argue amounts to voter suppression and a modern-day poll tax.
State Republicans introduced the bill after voters passed an amendment in November to give roughly 1.4 million people with felony convictions to right to cast ballots in elections. The measure allowed felons not convicted of murder or sexual offenses to vote once they “complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”
The language also said felons must complete their sentences, which Republicans interpreted to include paying off fines and fees imposed at sentencing.
Former felons register to vote in Miami on Jan. 8, 2019. (ELINA SHIRAZI/Fox News)
"Senate Bill 7066 enumerates a uniform list of crimes that fall into the excluded categories and confirms that the amendment does not apply to a felon who has failed to complete all the terms of his sentence," DeSantis wrote in a memo to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee.
Democrats argued the bill created unnecessary hurdles voters didn't foresee when they passed the amendment and that the original intent of preventing felons from voting was to repress the minority vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the NAACP and other groups promptly filed a federal lawsuit over the new law Friday.
“Over a million Floridians were supposed to reclaim their place in the democratic process, but some politicians clearly feel threatened by greater voter participation,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. "They cannot legally affix a price tag to someone's right to vote."
Experts said granting felons to right to vote could possibly tip the scales in a state where elections can be decided by a small percentage of votes.
Several groups and Democratic presidential hopefuls blasted new law over Twitter.
"Disgusting. My democracy plan would re-enfranchise those who have served their time and left prison—and prevent states like Florida from overriding their rights with Jim Crow-era nonsense," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted.
"The 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed to eliminate the poll tax. Today, FL Gov Ron DeSantis defied the will of people & signed a law depriving thousands of formerly incarcerated persons from voting unless they pay restitution, fines & fees. THIS is why we need to #RestoreTheVOTE," the NAACP posted.
When the bill advanced through the Florida House in April, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker called it a "poll tax," a tool most notoriously used to disenfranchise black voters in the Jim Crow-era south.
Under the law, felons could petition a judge to forgive their outstanding fines and fees in favor of community service or have a victim forgo repayment of restitution.