The $25 million collected by a statewide organization to pay fines and fees for former felons will keep them from having to choose between food, rent or the ballot box, the leader of the effort said Sunday in Fort Myers.
A check for $601,000 recently provided to the Lee County Clerk of Courts office is part of that effort here.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, showed off a large-scale copy of the check in front of the Old Lee County Courthouse in downtown Fort Myers. The organization made a stop in the city as part of the statewide effort to help people they describe as “returning citizens” reacquire their right to vote.
Meade and Neil Volz, deputy director and a Lee County resident, spoke about the importance of allowing citizens to vote, even those who are rejoining society after serving time as felons.
“That $600,000 was raised collectively from people across the country,” said Meade, an Orlando resident. “We have over 88,000 people who have donated an average donation of $3,000.
“I’d like to applaud the work of patriots, defenders of democracy throughout the state of Florida and throughout this country, that have stood up and dedicated money to the fines and fees fund knowing that no American citizen should be forced to choose between putting food on their table or voting,” Meade said. “No American citizen should be forced to choose between paying their rent or mortgage, or voting.”
An estimated 1.4 million felons were given the chance to vote after a ballot measure, Amendment 4, passed last November. Of that number, about 770,000 have unpaid fees or fines that could prevent them from registering under legislation signed into law in June by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We know that our infusion of $25 million will allow at least 25,000 people to participate in our democracy,” Meade said.
The amendment, which restores voting rights for felons other than convicted murderers and sex offenders, was approved by 64.5% of the vote. But the language said felons must complete their sentences, and Republicans in the state Legislature interpreted that to include paying restitution, court costs, fines and fees imposed by a judge at sentencing.
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Meade said that is tantamount to a poll tax.
“I’m going to tell you the words straight from the judge in the Northern District (of Florida),” Meade said. “There are some financial obligations that were administrative in nature, there are some that were punitive in nature. The judge clearly said that those that were mainly administrative in nature were akin to a poll tax.”
Meade said the judge also recognized that some of the fees and fines were legitimately connected to a person’s crime.
“However, the key thing that he said, in this country, being poor should never be a barrier to having access to the ballot box,” Meade said. “If an individual is too poor to pay those, whatever legitimate legal financial obligations were assessed, that they should still not be barred the opportunity to access democracy.”
Meade said the funds collected have so far paid fees and funds in 60 of the state’s 67 counties.
Meade said the money is also a benefit to county clerks’ offices that were already facing funding issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Volz said the coalition’s fines and fees program was started right after the law was passed to force felons to pay their financial obligations before getting their voting rights returned.
“We started working with local clerks of courts, state attorneys, public defenders, judicial districts,” Volz said. “We saw the need for a practical tool just like the fines and fees fund.”
Volz said the average payment across the state to pay fines and fees and have voting rights restored is about $1,000 per person.
For Lee County, Volz said, that translates to about 600 people.
“What we are doing is not going to end today, not going to end next week,” Meade added. “It’s going to be continuous because when Amendment 4 passed we made a personal commitment that every one of the 1.4 million returning citizens who should be benefitting from the passage of Amendment 4, that we will walk with them every step of the way.”
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This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Vote or eat? Coalition supporting felons’ voting rights gives $600,000 to help pay off fines, fees in Lee County