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.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him @PierreTristam. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.
Ben Hogarth says
This message is directly for Rep. Renner.
Enjoy your time at the top of the food chain commander, for whatever harm you do to my generation… whatever challenges or roadblocks you place down before my generation… whatever dismantling of the Constitution you manage to commit before the eyes of my generation..
We will undo. And I assure you, when I run and I win office, you can be rest assured that I won’t rest one waking moment until whatever trespasses you and your corrupt party have made against our democratic institutions have been unmade. Whatever gerrymandered districts you have etched out will be unwritten. Whatever injustices you have committed against my generation of free voters will be undone.
This is my promise, and I make it on behalf of my generation – whom your generation has left in the cold. Enjoy what opportunities you have to dismantle any remaining democratic institutions that currently remain. Because OUR time is steadily approaching and it can’t come soon enough.
““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.” Apply some common sense, not your agenda. “all the terms of sentence” says it all, “ALL”. Parole and probation are completed after the sentence, but are included in the sentence in this case.
Why “Must” Florida follow the rules of other states? Last I checked states still had power over their own laws except when the federal government applies it’s heavy hands.
Voter suppressors making it legal.
Outside Looking Out says
Pierre, are you worried that your democratic party can’t get enough dead people’s votes? Face it Dude, you’ve got 5+ years to wipe your butt hurt ass. Get over it. Perhaps if you and your libby cohorts would try to do things to make our country great again, try to work together to make our country great again and try to get along with people with sense, people who know a male from a female and who don’t try to diversify the general population of Americans, you all would appreciate living in the United States. I know you’re a legal alien but for God’s sake, learn to be an American. MAGA
Pierre Tristam says
The day I become an American on those terms you’re free to lynch me. You clearly know how so I’ll be in experienced hands. Meanwhile I’ll stick to Charmin.
Jane Gentile-Youd says
I voted for Adam Morely. I am a registered Republican. Renner has no respect for voters nor single family home owners.
I voted for that amendment as written. It was passed, and now it’s being walked back.
Perhaps our legislators are getting help from the lobbyists and special interest groups who are writing our laws and donating to our legislators. Take a look at this frightening two-year expose from USA Today, The Arizona Republic, and The Center for Public Integrity about the origin of many of our proposed bills: https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2019/04/03/abortion-gun-laws-stand-your-ground-model-bills-conservatives-liberal-corporate-influence-lobbyists/3162173002/ (Long, but definitely worth a read.)
And, a 2018 Pew Survey found that only 3% of people have a high level of confidence in our elected officials to act in the publics’ best interest. Gee, wonder why?
Renner is sad and pathetic. He’s a disgrace to democracy.
beach cat says
Paul Poll Tax does not care about his constituents. The Republican led legislature does not care about you. Or anyone, but themselves. I know the Mafia moved into the White House In January 2018, but now I’m beginning to wonder about the Florida Republican Legislature.
Diana L says
There is a very real reason why the conservative St Augustine Record endorsered his opponent. We must look at voting records and we must get involved in the process.
From the Constitution Center:
If there is a lesson in all of this it is that our Constitution is neither a self-actuating nor a self-correcting document. It requires the constant attention and devotion of all citizens. There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.
definition of including is: containing as part of the whole being considered.
Pierre, what part of your opinion statement do you not understand? Quote, “The wording of the amendment is plain: “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all TERMS of sentence including parole or probation.” I highlighted the word TERMS since last time I understood the ENGLISH language when a judge sentences you to so many years of prison AND restitution, those are the TERMS of their sentence, not just portions of it. Get over it!
Brad W says
I’m not a huge fan of Renner, but I don’t disagree with him here either. I voted for Amendment 4 and believe everyone should have the right and access to vote. I also believe in the rule of law, and when it comes to laws words matter. The amendment as proposed, as you say, say “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” “All terms” is pretty clear. So if fines were were a part of the terms of the sentence, Then until they are paid in full the terms of the sentence have not been fulfilled. “including parole and probation” merely spells two items to clarify them and doesn’t specifically state that they are the only items of the terms that need to be fulfilled. If the State doesn’t carry out the Amendment as it is written, and what is suggested here, then we go back to the subjective and arbitrary system we ad before. It’s not perfect, but it is a step forward. Unfortunately those who crafted it did a poor job not crafting the language appropriately. “Excluding fines and restitution” probably would have been a smart thing to include, but they didn’t. So the question is, how does it get fixed within the confines of the law?
WILLIAM J NELSON says
Although a Republican by card, I could not agree MORE with Mr. Hogarth. Politicians of “parties” treat the voting public as morons. Time to put an end to all of them and their disrespect “of the people”
Merrill S Shapiro says
I’ve forwarded this column to [email protected]. I hope you will too!
We deserve better representation in Tallahassee.
Concerned Citizen says
I have no problem with the right to vote being restored. After ALL sentencing requirements are met. Why is that so hard for people to understand? And why should a felon have more rights than someone who has never been in trouble? And what about the victims? Aren’t we forgetting victims rights?
When you agree to parole/probation you sign a contract. They explain everything to you the day you report. That contract says you agree to abide by the conditions in order to stay out of jail/prison. If not back you go. When and if all terms are met then you should get your rights back.
If you are elidgible for early release then it’s up to YOU to make sure you know what the status of any remaining fines/restitution are. Stop expecting society to handle your issues for you and take ownership.
I’m sure that sounded harsh but at the same time I am sure of this also. While there might be a small number of people who are unjustly sentenced I am sure there are a larger number of folks who are guilty and got breaks. Handle your busniess before making demands. People might listen more.
Jane Gentile-Youd says
Sometimes I think we have more criminals in elected office than we do in jails……
“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.”
I voted for this amendment because the had to serve the terms of their sentence. That sentence includes fines, therapy or whatever was handed down. Why is this even being questioned? I suspect it is the liberal side trying to stretch what the voters actually voted for. I am surprised why you are even questioning this Pierre?
It appears that there are a some people among us that have comprehension problems with the English language. Pretty straight forward to me but what the hell do I know. I’m just an old man who has been around the block a few times and has seen a thing or two as they say in the Farmer’s Insurance commercials.
I voted for the amendment and if fines and restitution, rehab programs etc etc are part of the sentence then it should be paid/completed. “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of ALL terms of sentence including parole or probation.” Seems pretty straight forward to me.
@The core of the matter
From Paul Renner’s Biography at VOTE SMART
Former President, Jacksonville Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society
Once, and always, a flying monkey serving the 1%.
Pretty easy to understand unless you think you will get votes to have or maintain power over the sheeple.
Alphonse Abonte says
The same people who are against this voting rights requirements are the same people who think illegal immigrants should be allowed in this country and given the RIGHT to vote.
Richard #2 says
To Ben Hogarth, post 1:
Well said! I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Every citizen has the right to vote, not the select few. There is no aristocracy in this country. Nobody is better than anyone else. The republican white supremacist fascists are running scared because they know only all too well that that if more citizens voted, they would get booted out of office. Voter suppression is the only way the republicans can stay in power.
As it stands right now, there are 4,965,139 registered democrats and 4,718,813 registered democrats (see Florida Dept of State, Division of Elections, data and statistics, Voter Registration By County and Party. The majority of the people in Florida are democrats.
Now add to the mix the people who are now able to vote because of Amendment 4, most of who will vote democrat because the republicans slighted them, the republican party has no chance of winning an election. So it’s no surprise republicans are running scared and will do everything they possibly can to block people affected by Amendment 4 from voting.