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Florida Moves Forward With Voting Legislation That Would Affect Convicted Felons

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Florida Pastor Greg James is one of the more than 1 million people with felony convictions whose right to vote was restored last November. That's when Floridians voted to approve Amendment 4.

GREG JAMES: There was joy beyond measure but yet - and still there was questions in my mind of what kind of resistance would we face?

CHANG: Pastor James was probably right to be worried. Now the Republican-controlled state legislature is moving forward with a plan that would make it more difficult for many of those same felons to qualify to vote. Steve Bousquet covers the Florida capital, and he explained who might be affected by this bill.

STEVE BOUSQUET: They're targeting the two areas where people are not allowed to get their voting rights restored, and those are people who've committed murder and felony sex crimes. And they are adopting in the House a very expansive, broad definition of those two things. The definition of murder is interpreted by some legislators to include attempted murder because the person had the intent of taking another life. In addition to that, the House is saying that you have to pay all your fines, fees and costs that were part of the court sentence before you can get your rights back, even though traditionally our clemency board that restores voting rights has not considered that as a factor.

Democrats are outraged and they consider this a poll tax just like the kind that was imposed in the Jim Crow era. And that really inflamed the passions when this was being debated in Tallahassee.

CHANG: What do you think are the reasons Republicans seem intent to restrict the number of people whose voting rights will be restored by this ballot initiative?

BOUSQUET: Well, you have to remember that it's a Republican legislature, and the House is more conservative than the Senate. So there's a lot that has to still play out here, and Governor Ron DeSantis is going to have a say as well. But I would say that because the leadership of the legislature never had much enthusiasm for this issue, their motives are suspect. And Representative James Grant, who's crafted the first version of this bill, says he's only trying to explain what the intent is of the amendment, but he's being accused here of trying to disenfranchise people.

CHANG: Well, I mean, I guess what I'm trying to ask is these felons whose voting rights will be restored, most of them are people of color. Is there a perception that these voters will not be Republican leaning and maybe that's why Republican lawmakers are motivated in rolling back this ballot initiative?

BOUSQUET: Absolutely. We're talking about a universe of about 1.4 million people. They are disproportionately African-American, so they're going to tend to be Democrat more than Republican or independent. It's not lost on anyone that we're coming into a presidential election cycle in a state that was critical to President Trump winning in 2016. We've just gotten an announcement of a major voter registration effort by the Florida Democratic Party. So registering voters in Florida has never been a bigger deal than it is right now. And this amendment plays right into that conversation.

CHANG: How likely is this that these lawmakers will see their will bear fruit, given that they control the legislature and there is a Republican governor?

BOUSQUET: That's correct. And Ron DeSantis has said - the new governor has said that he supports the legislature writing - implementing legislation here. But here's the issue that's important for folks not to lose sight of - this is at least the third time in recent years we've had a constitutional amendment approved by the voters where the legislature stands accused of trying to undermine what the voters had in mind. This happened with the medical marijuana amendment, and it happened with a pro-environment amendment to protect land and water resources. Here again issues the legislature wouldn't deal with, so the public took matters into their own hands only to find themselves at the mercy of a legislature in the final analysis because they get to write the fine print.

CHANG: That Steve Bousquet. He's a reporter and columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel. Thanks very much.

BOUSQUET: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.