Most Florida felons will have their voting rights restored under a bill the state Senate passed Thursday to implement a constitutional amendment approved by voters, though it won't just be a matter of walking out of prison and being able to register.
The bill will require that all financial obligations ordered by a judge be paid before felons can vote. That's an obstacle Democrats say wasn't intended when 64.5 percent of voters decided to let felons vote once they've completed their sentences. The measure approved by voters in November doesn't allow the restoration of voting rights for murderers and felony sex offenders.
Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes said he wishes his bill could be more lenient, but the language of the amendment said all terms of a sentence have to be completed, and that includes restitution, court costs, fines and fees ordered by a judge. He said that language doesn't give the Legislature any leeway to ignore it.
"My heart is in a different place, and I would love to go farther," said Brandes, who cited his Christian upbringing and the story of Jesus having dinner with sinners. "It should be our place to always try to seek mercy over sacrifice. So we will continue to work toward that goal, we will continue to work toward that end ... In the context of this bill, I have gone as far as I can."
Brandes did make changes in the bill to create pathways for felons to meet their financial obligations beyond simply paying them. Among the options would be to have a victim forgive the repayment of restitution or to have a judge convert financial obligations to community service.
Still, Democrats opposed the measure. Sen. Perry Thurston said Florida could once again be seen as treating people unfairly and trying to suppress the vote. He compared the issue to the civil rights movement.
"Do we want one uniform system of voting where people pay their time, they get to vote again? Or do we want to just say, 'Here we go again: Floriduh,'" Thurston said. "This is just doing the right thing."
The bill now goes to the House. Friday is the final day to pass bills other than the state budget, which the Legislature will take up on Saturday.