Two years ago more than 64% of Florida voters passed an amendment to the state constitution that would restore voting rights to more than 1.5 million former felons, however, a majority of people who have completed their sentences will still not be able to vote in the 2020 Presidential Election.
After voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed a bill signed by the governor stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other financial obligations before their sentences will be considered fully served. In response, more than a dozen former felons and voting rights groups sued Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state arguing the restriction is another form of voter suppression for majority Black and poor communities.
The issue legal battle has still not been resolved as of Nov. 3, Election Day 2020.
Florida Rights Restoration Coalition raised $27 million to pay off fines and fees for more than 40,000 returning citizens statewide by the Presidential Election. More than 90,000 donors contributed to the fund, including many celebrities. The FRRC led the 2018 ballot initiative to restore voting rights to ex-felons.
“While I know I know America is making a very important decision today on who will lead our country what I’m more exited about is the fact that more Americans will have an opportunity to weigh in to decide the direction and within that group is a strong showing of people with previous felony convictions,” FRRC President Desmond Meade said on Election night, adding “If we changed at least one person’s life it was well worth it.”
Below is a timeline of Amendment 4 and the ongoing court battle to restore voting rights to Floridians:
Where things stand now: People who have completed their sentences for non-violent crimes and paid all fines and restitution can register and vote in Florida. However, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, these fees can add up to tens of thousands of dollars and often be hard to determine what someone owes. A report submitted by in federal court claims there are more than 700,000 ex-felons in Florida who are ineligible to vote because of outstanding fines such as court fees and restitution.
September 2020: The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a lower court ruling, reversing Judge Robert Hinkle’s decision that gave Florida felons the right to vote regardless of outstanding financial obligations.
July 2020: A divided U.S Supreme Court upholds the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to temporarily block hundreds of thousands of Florida felons from voting, making it unlikely that they will be allowed to cast a ballot in the state’s August primary.
June 2020: The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta issues a stay while reviewing a ruling by a Tallahassee federal district court judge that ordered the state to give felons access to the ballot box under Amendment 4.
May 2020: District Court Judge Robert Hinkle rules Florida lawmakers had devised a “pay-to-vote system,” and orders the state to allow many Florida felons to vote — regardless of any outstanding legal debts. Gov. DeSantis appealed Hinkle’s ruling, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in its entirety agreed to hear the governor’s appeal and to stay the lower court ruling.
October 2019: A federal district court judge in Tallahassee suspends the law for plaintiffs who could not afford to pay their outstanding debts. He agreed with voter rights advocates that imposing the debt requirement on impoverished felons amounted to a poll tax. Florida filled an appeal to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging the judge’s decision.
June 28, 2019: Gov. Ron DeSantis signs Senate Bill 7066 into law requiring former felons to pay all fines and fees before being able to vote in Florida. On the same day, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law arguing that it “creates wealth-based hurdles to voting and undermines Floridians' overwhelming support for Amendment 4.” Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group behind Amendment 4, also challenged the provisions in the Florida Supreme Court.
March 2019: The Florida House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approves a bill on a 10-5 vote that defines what it means to complete a criminal sentence, including paying all civil fines and court costs. The House and Senate approved to the bill in May, sending it to Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign.
Jan. 8, 2019: Amendment 4 becomes effective and former non-violent offenders can begin registering to vote.
November 2018: More than 64% of Florida voters approve Amendment 4. Prior to the amendment the only way former felons would have their voting rights restored in Florida was to wait at least five years before asking the Florida Clemency Board to restore their voting rights. This amendment would automatically restore voting rights to non-violent offenders if they completed their parole and probation periods.