Gov. Ron DeSantis, who likely benefited from state rules that sharply limit the voting rights of ex-felons, is now considering legislation requiring them to pay all fines, court costs and financial restitution before they can become eligible to vote.

Democrats voted against the legislation, Senate Bill 7066, which passed the state House and Senate last week on party-line votes.

Opponents argue that SB 7066 would thwart the will of voters who approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that sought to ease restrictions on ex-felon voting.

An investigation by The Palm Beach Post last fall found that the restrictions disproportionately impact minority voters, as they are over-represented among those convicted of felonies. With minorities more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, restricting the voting rights of ex-felons has given GOP candidates an edge in a state known for close elections.

DeSantis, a Republican, became governor after defeating his Democratic rival, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, by 32,000 votes out of more than 8.1 million ballots cast.

His Republican predecessor, Rick Scott, was re-elected in 2014 by a margin of fewer than 64,000 votes out of 5.7 million ballots cast. Four years earlier, Scott was elected governor by a margin of fewer than 62,000 votes out of 5.2 million ballots cast.

Supporters of Amendment 4 believe easing restrictions on ex-felon voting rights would make an additional 1.4 million to 1.5 million Floridians eligible to vote.

"We're talking about adding a significant number of people to the rolls," said state Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach. "That could potentially swing elections in Florida. I say potentially because you don't know if those folks will register, and you don't know who they will vote for."

Powell originally backed SB 7066, but that was before it was amended to require that ex-felons pay court costs, fines and court-ordered financial restitution. Powell voted against the legislation when it reached the Senate floor.

DeSantis has not said publicly whether he will sign SB 7066. He opposed Amendment 4 as a candidate for governor, and he argued that it should not be implemented until lawmakers passed enabling legislation.

On Monday, his office did not respond to requests for comment on SB 7066.

Republicans in Florida and across the country have supported a variety of voting restrictions, including closing polling places, requiring identification and approving rules making it difficult for ex-felons to regain their right to vote. Democrats say the tactics are all part of the GOP's political playbook for winning elections.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., likened the additions to the Florida bill to a "poll tax," a ballot access payment charged throughout the South after the Civil War to limit black voting.

"A poll tax by any other name," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in March as SB 7066 moved through the Legislature.

Desmond Meade, president of the group that put Amendment 4 on the ballot, said possibly half of those now disqualified might still be unable to vote because of outstanding court costs.

Meade said his organization, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, may challenge the requirement in court — but for now is urging DeSantis to veto the legislation.

“The governor has the power to demand a more thoughtful bill,” Meade said. “The governor has the power to demand a bill that more closely reflects the will of Florida voters.”

A court fight over SB 7066 would likely come down to an interpretation of Amendment 4, which states in part:

"No person convicted of a felony, or adjudicated in this or any other state to be mentally incompetent, shall be qualified to vote or hold office until restoration of civil rights or removal of disability. Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation."

Democrats argue that "all terms" of sentencing include an ex-felon's prison sentence, parole and probation. Republicans argue that all terms include fines, court costs and court-ordered financial restitution in addition to an ex-felon's prison sentence, parole and probation.

“This is not a situation where somebody has to come up with money to vote,” said state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa. “It’s completing a sentence.”

Opponents of the legislation, however, argue that it does require ex-felons to pony up if they want to vote.

 

John Kennedy of GateHouse Media contributed to this report.