The first lawsuit concerning a bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis requiring convicted felons to pay court fees and fines before they can register to vote has ties to the Tampa Bay area.
Disability attorney Michael Steinberg of Tampa filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kelvin Jones, a disabled veteran and former prisoner, almost immediately after DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066 into law June 28. It has already been combined with a number of other similar cases.
The bill was filed in response to Amendment 4, which voters approved by a 65-35% margin in November 2018. That amendment restored the voting rights of Floridians with convictions after they completed all the terms of their sentences.
Steinberg explained that the bill, which passed in March 2019, was meant to clarify what completing a sentence meant.
The statute also said that voting rights will not be restored to felons with outstanding court fees. This has made critics liken the new addition to a sort of "poll tax." DeSantis said this is inaccurate. “The idea that paying restitution to someone is the equivalent to a tax is totally wrong,” DeSantis said eariler this year. “The only reason you’re paying restitution is because you were convicted of a felony.”
Jones' suit argues these requirements add conditions which were not in Amendment 4.
“You cannot by law make provisions on top of a constitutional amendment that’s stricter than the constitutional amendment," said DiMaio. "Meaning that these other provision that were added on by the legislature and passed by the governor, are blatantly illegal.”
He also argues the law violates the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause and the 24th Amendment prohibiting the imposition of poll taxes or other taxes as a condition to vote.
“You know some of these drug fines, in one case, can go up to $50,000,” said Victor DiMaio, who works in Steinberg’s office. “(Jones is) 100% totally disabled, he’s a veteran, and there is no way he will be able to pay off that fine, he’s living off disability.”
Steinberg says Jones was arrested on drug trafficking charges about 20 years ago. He now suffers from several health issues, including arthritis and hip and back injuries after working several years as a landscaper.
The complaint also argues that the law will have a disproportionate impact on African Americans.
“20% of all black people in the state of Florida are ex-felons and up until Amendment 4, didn’t have the right to vote,” said Steinberg.
“You really have to look at this politically, the fact that the majority of Hispanics and African Americans vote democratic are contrary to republican make up of voters who are disproportionally white,” DiMaio added. “We’re not claiming that it’s racist, we’re claiming it’s done for political purposes.”
They also argue it hurts the elderly and disabled.
“If someone is disabled, they won’t even have the opportunity to pay off the fine,” Steinberg says. “For someone who is 80 years old who has a felony from 40 years ago, there’s no way they can pay off the fine or the court cost or somebody who is disabled and is getting SSI benefits…and it’s not really getting talked about that much.”
The signing of the bill has also caused a lot of confusion about who is and is not eligible to vote. DiMaio is even unsure if those ex-prisoners who have already registered to vote will have their voting rights revoked again.
“We don’t know…The law didn’t set up a real pathway for this to be done, and we have disparity between circuits,” DiMaio said. “This is going to be a big mess until this can get settled one way or another.”
One group already fighting against the statue signed on Friday is The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
In a press release, executive director Desmond Meade said, “We are committed to operating under the law to register every one of the estimated 840,000 immediately eligible returning citizens in Florida. For the remaining 500,000, we will utilize the provisions of the legislation and generosity of our allies and extended FRRC family to provide relief for those facing financial barriers in completing their sentences.”
In a press conference Tuesday, Meade discussed "Get the Vote," an FRRC fundraising initiative to help people pay off their court and legal fees.
“What we see is a lot of opportunity to engage returning citizens in a meaningful way, help them complete their terms of their sentence, help them register to vote and them help them become engaged in a political process,” Meade said.
The FRRC plans to work with other organizations and Florida attorneys volunteering their time and legal advice.