Flagler County’s House Representative Paul Renner used a lot of bitter words when he provided his weekly legislative update on WNZF last week and again this week as he described advocates of Amendment 4, the measure voters approved last November to restore voting rights to most felons. He used words like “hypocrisy,” “intellectual dishonesty,” “misleading,” “disgusting,” “manipulating.” He applied the words to reporters, too. But the words could just as easily be applied to him.
Amendment 4 automatically restored felons’ right to vote after serving the terms of their sentence as long as they haven’t committed murder or felony sexual offenses. The Legislature is nearing approval of a bill that defines in law many terms in the amendment. It is defining “terms of sentence” to also include all financial obligations such as fines and restitution. Amendment 4 advocates are objecting to that as a new kind of poll tax. They’re right.
But Renner is also right when he says that when the lawyer representing Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the Amendment 4 sponsor, appeared before the Supreme Court, he was asked during the 21-minute hearing if fines and restitution were included in the requirements. He said yes. But that wording never made it into the constitution, nor was it part of the text presented to voters when the ballot measure was gathering its required 766,000 petitions (it gathered 842,800, including 8,178 in Flagler), nor was so much as a hint of it part of the Supreme Court’s opinion approving the ballot language.
Nor, by the way, were the completion of residential treatment programs, education programs, work programs or community service mentioned during the court hearing or in the ballot language, though the Legislature is now making the completion of all those “terms of sentence” part of the obstacles to regain the right to vote. It’s legislator’s cynical payback to voters.
The wording of the amendment is plain: “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” The amendment specifies what it means: probation or parole. It does not include restitution nor the rest of it. Oral arguments are not law. What a lawyer tells justices is not law. What advocates say or don’t say on their website isn’t law anymore than opinion columns are. The words of the Constitution are. So Amendment 4 advocates should not be attacked for interpreting those words in a way that restores voting rights even if all fines and restitutions haven’t been paid. It’s a matter of interpretation, not dishonesty, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation.
The amendment doesn’t invite the Legislature or a state agency to clarify anything or set out rules, as some amendments do. The Legislature invited itself. That was step one where the Legislature opened the door to interpretations. And we know how slippery the Legislature’s interpretations can be. Two years ago it claimed–with Renner in tow–to be carrying out the will of the voters when it banned smokable marijuana and imposed all sorts of onerous restrictions on the delivery system of medical pot. It took lawsuits and a new governor to shake the Legislature out of its contempt for what 70 percent of voters had approved. The Legislature is setting itself up for the same kind of legal wrangles over Amendment 4.
Renner claims he’s carrying out the will of the voters as presented to the Supreme Court. Wrong. I’m sure six and a half voters watched that hearing before the supreme court, and Renner was one of them. But I’d rather Renner didn’t tell me what my will was beyond what he and I could see in writing, in law, not in each other’s minds. Any voter who read that proposed amendment filling out petitions or in the voting booth could see that it said nothing about fines, restitution and whether felons get a GED or a drug test. I certainly didn’t. I expect most voters didn’t either. Our will is not Jim Crow lite.
Voters’ will on Amendment 4 is not Jim Crow lite.
There’s a good reason for that. All but a handful of states restore voting rights to felons. In Maine and Vermont, even imprisoned felons can vote (as it should be). In 14 states, the right to vote is restored the moment the felon steps out of prison. Parole and probation are not obstacles. In the 20-odd states where completion of probation or parole is required, most, including Texas, never known to be friendly to felons, exclude financial obligations from those requirements. Tennessee in 2006 made financial obligations, including child support, part of the requirement, but Washington State changed its law in 2009 to eliminate financial obligations as barriers to voting.
So it would or should have been in Florida, especially since fines and restitution are overwhelmingly reduced to civil, not criminal judgments. In other words they’re like traffic fines. You can’t be imprisoned over them, but you’re still required to pay them. That’s how it should be. The same right should extend to voting. California law makes that explicit: “An unfulfilled order or condition of restitution, including a restitution fine that can be converted to a civil judgment or an unpaid restitution fee is not deemed to be unsatisfactory completion of supervision or probation.”
Renner was dishonest when he twice claimed on the radio that Amendment 4 advocates are saying felons shouldn’t have to pay restitution or fines, as if they’re asking for a pass. His words: “The proponents could have very simply said what they’re now saying, that if somebody completes their sentence and they don’t want to pay their restitution they don’t have to, they can still vote, or they don’t have to pay the fines or the court costs the court imposed on them if they don’t want to, or they can’t, and they can still vote.” False. Proponents are asking for Florida law to mirror that of most states: to not have the financial obligation stand in the way of felons’ vote, not to end their obligation to pay.
And Renner is being disingenuous when he attacks reporters for making comparisons to the Jim Crow era, as if that era, bleak as it was in Florida, never existed and doesn’t reverberate to this day. Of course it does. That’s why this constitutional amendment was necessary. It’s finally discarding a vestige of that disgusting era, which systematically sought “to eliminate the Negro vote by subterfuge,” as Carter G. Woodson wrote. (A third of Florida’s 1.7 million disenfranchised voters are black). Renner’s Legislature claimed it would enact Amendment 4 as willed by voters, then hunted and found a new subterfuge to crowbar its aims. In that context, the word “disgusting” is used properly. Let’s not misuse it to attack Amendment 4 advocates, who are advocating for rights, not their continued abrogation.
Renner again defended his words when he addressed Amendment 4 Friday in response to a version of this piece, this time shoving a whole fishery of red herrings at listeners when he said the Amendment doesn’t restore the right of felons to sit on a jury, run for office, hold certain occupational licenses. “None of that is dealt with in this amendment, all they did is allow them the right to vote,” Renner said, actually blaming amendment advocates for the seeming blind spot. “What we said is that’s not right.” This from a lawyer who had just discussed the advocates’ appearance before the Supreme Court, an appearance required to ensure that a proposed amendment abides by a single subject. He shoveled more red herrings: “We should be talking about not just giving them the right to vote, but what is their life like when they get back? We want them to get a job, we want them to have a great life, we want them to have opportunities.”
Really? Renner is portraying himself as a friend to released felons when in fact, the bill he’s peddling, by so promiscuously shackling the right to vote–the cornerstone of a person’s sense of reintegration, participation, citizenship–cruelly does precisely the opposite of what Renner pretends to want to help restore. The proof is in the wording. The constitutional amendment could not legally address all those other issues Renner is talking about. The bill could. But it does not. Like a trial lawyer who knows how to detract a jury from the essence of a case, he’s just changing the subject by fabricating hollow sympathies with the very felons he’s screwing out of a vote. (On April 9, Renner introduced a separate bill through the Criminal Justice Committee he chairs to accomplish some of those aims for felons.)
The thing is, Renner is a level-headed lawyer who knows the power of words and whose intelligence and command of issues sparkle enough that he doesn’t have to stoop to base-baiting ideological rhetoric to make his points. He talks on the merits and leaves the grandstanding to others. That’s why the virulence of his attacks on Amendment 4 advocates surprised me, as did his casting the issue in ironically black and white terms, when it is anything but. I don’t know if Renner is getting cockier, more ideological and partisan as he climbs his way to the speakership of the House in 2022, or if he’s being contaminated by the trumpish virus of slinging red meat seasoned in alternative facts at his base. I hope that’s not what we’re seeing. It would be a shame and a loss of what, until now, has been an admirably sharp if rare Republican with whom it’s possible to rationally romp and disagree and still respect in the morning.
Amendment 4 advocates are certainly not innocent of misrepresentations, but nor is the legislature, nor is Renner. If the Legislature is uninvitedly opening the door to interpretation, and it is, then let’s be honest about it, let’s debate, let’s not ignore history, and let’s respect where we’re all coming from, keeping in mind the end goal is the restitution of the right to vote in the broadest, most accommodating way possible, not that of a few dollars more.