Over 1 million former felons still face hurdles after being given right to vote

In Florida, many former felons owe the court money, preventing them from voting.

March 8, 2020, 5:17 AM

It’s been more than 10 years since ​Gary Daughtry Sr., 66, had the right to vote and since he was released from prison. Previously in the state of Florida, anyone who committed a felony ​lost his or her right to vote ​and had to petition the governor to become re-enfranchised.

“I don’t think it’s fair that I had to pay my debt to society, and they won’t let me vote,” Daughtry told ABC News.

More than a decade ago, Daughtry committed grand theft in Florida, a third-degree felony. He served 16 months in prison and the court ordered him to pay an array of fees as part of his sentence, of which he still owes almost $1,000. He told ABC News he’s unable to pay because he’s disabled and cannot work, ​and he says all he wants to do is help re-elect President Donald Trump.

"I support him in every way," Daughtry said.

Under a new state law, passed last year with the​ stated aim​ to not re-enfranchise a felon who had not completed all terms of his or her sentence, former felons are required to either pay the fees and fines that they owe or get their sentence modified in order to register to vote. The process itself is also relatively complicated so that despite some counties implementing procedures to help former felons along, advocates say it still represents a tremendous hurdle to enfranchisement.

Gary Daughtry Sr. is a returning citizen who owes almost $1,000 in fines and fees from his a felony offense from over a decade ago. Since he's unable to pay those fines, he may not be able to vote in the general election.
Courtesy Henrietta Callowhill

Daughtry’s experience trying to register to vote in Florida is illustrative of the predicament faced by many of the 1.4 million other former felons in Florida – also known as returning citizens, according to advocates. In the last two years, people in Florida like Daughtry have been re–enfranchised, then seemingly disenfranchised, and then re–enfranchised again through a variety of legal maneuvers. Ultimately, many returning citizens were left confused and unsure about their right to register to vote, advocates say.

Some 80% of the former felons in Florida, an estimated 1.12 million, owe fines or fees above $500, which many are unable to pay.

“What they’ve heard is that if you don’t have the money to pay, you can’t register,” said Carlos Martinez, Miami-Dade's public defender, referring to Florida's Senate Bill 7066, which stipulates that if a former felon has any outstanding court fees or fines, he or she would need to pay those fees before being re-enfranchised. “Well, that’s not the reality of the law that was passed.”

According to advocates and public officials, returning citizens who owe the court money, but are unable to pay, could request their original sentence be modified in order to vote in the upcoming presidential election -- their payment may be converted to community service hours or it may still be required, but it won't be a requirement in order to vote.

While there are over 21 million Floridians -- over 7% of them are former felons -- there are only 13 million registered voters in Florida, according to recent data. If all 1.4 million eligible former felons registered to vote, they would make up roughly 10% of the voting population in the state. This could affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election since Florida is famously a swing state -- the 2000 presidential election was decided by Florida, where George W. Bush won by fewer than 600 votes.

Disenfranchising those with records

The act of disenfranchising people who commit crimes dates back to the beginning of U.S. history. While disenfranchising felons is still constitutional, almost half of the states in the last 20 years have expanded a felon’s right to vote in some way.

States like Maine and Vermont allow felons to even vote behind bars, but Iowa only allows returning citizens the right to vote through discretionary executive clemency.

Florida has a particularly fraught history with re-enfranchising former felons. Under Gov. Charlie Crist in the early 2000s, felons who committed certain crimes and fulfilled their sentences could have their voting rights restored quickly. But in 2011, when Rick Scott became governor, the process became harder than ever. Compared to Crist, Scott granted voting registrations 50 times less, and he was in office for twice as long, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. ​Within the first five years of his Governorship, Scott re-enfranchised fewer than 2,000 returning citizens, and when voting registration was granted, it took years, and the re-enfranchised citizens were disproportionately white and Republican.

Many have called the 2019 bill a “poll tax” because it seems to disenfranchise 80% of returning citizens, and it disproportionately affects the black population of Florida. One in every five African Americans is a returning citizen in Florida, which means that nearly 20% of that population will need to go through some type of sentence modification process in order to register to vote.

Confusion abounds

In November 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment Four, which gave most former felons, other than murderers or anyone who committed a felony sex crime, the right to vote. For a former felon who didn’t owe court fines or fees, this meant he could register to vote immediately without going through any modification process.

The confusion for many returning citizens really began in March 2019, when the Republican-led state legislature passed S.B. 7066. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed this bill into law.

Then, the courts got involved. In October 2019, a preliminary injunction was issued by a federal court judge, saying the payment requirement was unconstitutional. In January 2020, the Supreme Court of Florida issued an advisory opinion upholding the bill.

Then in February, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the preliminary injunction. In its ruling, because the 17 plaintiffs -- who were all former felons who owed the courts fines or fees -- were genuinely unable to pay their legal financial obligations, the decision said the law “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can,” and therefore, unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of wealth.

“The punishment visits the felon at each and every election,” the 11th Circuit’s decision read. “Felons who are unable to pay (and who have no reasoned prospect of being able to pay) will remain barred from voting, repeatedly and indefinitely, while for those who can pay, the punishment will immediately come to an end.”

According to Danielle Lang, an attorney with Campaign Legal Center who argued on behalf of the 17 plaintiffs in front of the 11th Circuit, the United States is a country that believes in second chances.

“It was really heartening to see the 11th Circuit unanimously kind of grasp that that’s what is at the heart of this case, and reject the idea that we, in America in 2020, are going to decide who gets to vote based on, you know, how much is in your pocket book,” said Lang.

But this preliminary injunction isn’t the end of the legal battle, especially since it only applied to the 17 plaintiffs. There will be a trial in April and there is also a pending class action lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the governor said he would appeal the 11th Circuit Court’s decision.

Until then, some advocates, public defenders, and prosecutors from across the state of Florida are trying to help register returning citizens, but this can be an arduous process.

The modification process

“That bill, [SB 7066], basically says that [if] a person has any legal financial obligation, that they can petition the court to relieve those financial obligations,” Desmond Meade of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a third-party apolitical organization, told ABC News. “And the courts can do so by either waving the financial obligation or converting them to community service hours.”

In this Jan. 8, 2019, file photo, former felon Desmond Meade and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, left, fills out a voter registration form as his wife Sheena looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando, Fla.
John Raoux/AP, FILE

According to Meade and several elected public officials, any former felon in Florida, who doesn’t have a disqualifying offense and can’t afford to pay his fees or fines, can go into any courthouse in Florida and request a modification to his original sentence.

The process is complex. According to Martinez, the returning citizen first needs to reach out to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Then, the FRRC will contact the public defender’s office, which will investigate the returning citizen’s file. His or her sentence will be identified, and if fees and fines are associated and the person is unable to pay, the office will reach out to a pro bono attorney, who will file a motion in court to modify the original sentence. In Miami-Dade, there are three judges specifically in charge of reviewing these types of cases.

“This is not something where a non-lawyer can easily figure it out,” Martinez said, which is why his county, along with the three others, have created these unique systems where local jurisdictions have put in place processes to help returning citizens modify their original sentences..

Modifying former felons' sentences doesn't mean their fines go away. For returning citizens living in Palm Beach County who owe fines, they will still be required to pay a fee, but paying that fee won’t be a requirement in order to vote.

In Miami-Dade County, Martinez estimates that there are 150,000 former felons, 80% of whom would need to go through this modification process in order to vote. But only 35 returning citizens have gone through this process, according to Martinez. He is expecting another 250 modification requests.

Martinez said these low numbers can be partially blamed on the confusion many former felons have about the process, due to the various lawsuits, preliminary injunctions, rulings, statements by the governor and the different processes within each county.

Blue counties v. Red counties

“It should not matter what county you live in to obtain the right to vote,” said Dave Aronberg, the Palm Beach State Attorney. “But right now, it seems that you're having an easier time to register to vote in blue counties than red counties.”

Out of the 67 counties in Florida, only four -- Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward, and Hillsborough -- have created processes within their local jurisdictions to help returning citizens with the modification process, and even within these four counties the processes vary from county to county.

Desmond Meade, president of the FRRC, who works with local jurisdictions to create systems like that in Miami-Dade, told ABC News he is talking to more conservative counties to help them create similar processes.

“We are continuing to encourage them to embrace it – the legislation” Desmond said.

According to Meade, public defenders and states attorneys, a prime argument for re-enfranchisement ultimately winds up being public safety and a pathway out of recidivism.

"You do not create a safer society when you create a permanent underclass of society who are told that no matter what they do in life, they will never achieve equality ever again,” Aronberg of Palm Beach County told ABC News, saying his top priority as a state attorney is public safety. “That's the quickest way to recidivism. That's the quickest way to resentment, and to create a situation where returning citizens commit more crimes, and work against society, rather than be part of it.”

But Gary Daughtry, Sr. lives in Polk County, one of the counties that has not yet created a system that would easily allow him to modify his sentence in order to register to vote. ABC News reached out to Polk County but did not immediately hear back.

“There is nothing more fundamentally American than the right to vote,” said Martinez.

Daughtry agrees, saying all he wants to do is vote to re-elect President Trump in November.

“The man has done more for this country than any other president in history,” said Daughtry. “So, I’m going with a sure thing.”

While Daughtry hasn’t yet been able to register himself, he helped register his fiance, Henrietta Callowhill. She said she voted for the first time in her life last year.

“I’m happy to be on the straight and narrow,” said Daughtry. “And I think it’s only right to let me vote.”

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