When Karen Leicht registered to vote this year in Miami she was elated, taking advantage of Florida’s voter initiative that lets ex-felons get back their voting rights.
Her excitement has faded, thanks to a new law that says she’ll have to pay off all her remaining court fines before she can cast a ballot.
That might prove difficult. She owes $59 million on her 2010 conviction for insurance fraud.
Ms. Leicht is one of an estimated 1.4 million former felons who expected to benefit after voters last year approved Amendment 4, stating that criminals who have served their sentence and probation can vote again provided they weren’t convicted of a sex crime or murder.
Yet state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said the ballot initiative was unclear. Last month they approved SB 7066, which requires former felons to also complete repayment of fines and restitution ordered at sentencing before they are once again welcome in the voting booth.
“I pay taxes. I paid my debt to society,” Ms. Leicht said. “This is simply because the people in power are afraid of the bloc of people and how that bloc is going to vote. It’s pure voter suppression, that’s the way I see it.”
The new law is estimated to impact some 500,000 people, although as Pamela Burch Fort, an attorney with the NAACP on the case, noted: “we don’t really have any exact accountings.”
Ms. Leicht has joined other individuals and various civil rights groups in filing lawsuits against SB 7066.
The lawsuits have been consolidated before U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who held an initial scheduling conference call Friday and set a motion hearing for Aug. 9.
Florida’s vote to restore voting rights last year was a major victory for criminal justice reform advocates, who argue those who have fulfilled their debts should be welcomed back into society in full.
Some 65% of Florida voters agreed.
But the GOP-led state Legislature said the measure was too cloudy and SB 7066 cleared the air.
Mr. DeSantis appeared to have some reluctance in signing the legislation, according to local reports, but did so for a variety of reasons.
“Amendment 4 restores — without regard to the wishes of the victims — voting rights to violent felons, including felons convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery and kidnapping, so long as those felons completed all terms of their sentence,” the governor wrote. “I think this was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders.”
Ms. Leicht said she is “very optimistic” about the lawsuits’ chances, a mood that perhaps got a boost when the case ended up with Judge Walker, an Obama administration appointee who in February 2018 ripped former Republican Gov. Rick Scott for erecting too many hurdles to restoring the franchise to criminals.
The plaintiffs say the new law requiring all fines to be paid is the equivalent of a poll tax, creating an unconstitutional barrier to voting.
That charge resonates among many sectors in the Deep South, where a poll tax was on the books after Reconstruction and through the Jim Crow era.
“It creates dual levels of potential voters — who has the ability to pay, and those who may never be able to do so,” Ms. Burch Fort said. “Some people owe vast sums of money. And then there are some who have been diligently paying their fines and now, suddenly, they have lost the right the voters clearly restored.”
Ms. Leicht, 62, says her tangle with the law stemmed from some clients of her former husband. In the end, she was convicted of one count of insurance fraud and one count of wire fraud, but it was the conspiracy charge that led to the whopping $59 million fine.
She served 30 months in a federal prison before being released in January 2013.
In March, she testified before the Florida Legislature against SB7066, and she said many state lawmakers were startled by the appearance of someone with an MBA.
“There is this stereotype about ‘felons’ and I think they were rather surprised to see this well-dressed white woman coming in to argue against the bill,” she said.
But Republican lawmakers and Mr. DeSantis disagreed, noting that more than simply pulling a lever can go with the right to vote — such as the ability to hold office — and that the amendment was more sweeping than voters realized.
For Ms. Leicht, her voting card will remain unused for now. She says she won’t risk showing up and casting a vote as an act of protest because she refuses to ever see jail again, “and I wouldn’t put it past them to throw me back in prison.”
“I’ve fulfilled all the terms of my sentence,” she said. “My sentence is over; I am now free and I should be free to vote, too.”
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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