HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — A former Florida Supreme Court Justice warns thousands could be forced to pay up before they cast a ballot. That's because of the wording of a new state law that took effect on Tuesday, expected to restore voting rights to more than one million former felons.
Amendment 4 states someone must complete all of the terms of their sentence in order to vote. Beyond prison time, that can include restitution and court fines, costs and fees. The law excludes those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.
“Unfortunately it’s a monetary debt and that is the piece that’s troublesome to me," retired Justice James E.C. Perry told ABC Action News I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern. "Because you should not not be allowed to vote because you owe somebody some money. It’s akin to a poll tax, in my estimation. And it’s really ‘cash register justice.’ You got to pay in order to vote. And that shouldn’t be the case.”
Poll taxes served as a form of voter suppression and were outlawed in federal elections in the 1960s.
Perry says when it comes to Amendment 4, "the devil is in the details."
"Those are details I don't think the public was fully aware of when they voted," he said. “Let’s be clear about what this is. This is another case of voter suppression. In my humble opinion.”
Perry acknowledged it's clear in the constitution that you have to complete your sentence, but shared, "I think there’s a better chance of court costs and cost supervision, those might be separated out. Because that’s really not a part of the statute that they were convicted under.”
ABC Action News met with Coral Nichols, who is just months away from completing 10 years of probation for grand theft and wrongful misuse of identity. Before that, Nichols spent five years in prison.
"I wanted to die," Nichols said, getting choked up as she looked at her mug shot, taken when she was 23 years old. "That girl right there wanted to die. She didn't see a way out."
Since her release from prison, Nichols started the non-profit Empowered to Change, where she works to help others stay out of jail. She also was a part of the push to restore voting rights for felons who have completed their sentence.
"I think I cried for like three hours after the numbers came through," Nichols said, beginning to cry. "That the majority spoke and that yeah, people deserve a second chance."
In the November midterm elections, nearly 65% of Florida voters approved Amendment 4. But Nichols will not get that second chance she helped fight for because she still owes money that's part of her sentence.
"I want to pay the restitution off, I do. But the exorbitant amount of $295,000 at $100 a month, because that's about what I can afford, means that I'll be paying for it after I'm dead," Nichols said. "Should I pay that money, absolutely. But should that money prevent me from being able to cast a ballot - no."
Court costs, fines and fees can rack up with felony convictions. The I-Team found the 13th judicial district, covering Hillsborough County, had the lowest collection rate for criminal cases in the state last year at about 8%.
"Some of the fines are very high. Very high," Hillsborough County Clerk Pat Frank explained, saying a lot of people who come through the court system will never be able to pay off what they owe.
"The system does not deal very kindly with poor people," she said. “Within the first 90 days, we send letters out and we ask for, very nicely, for people to comply. After that, it goes into a collection agency. And it gets worse, because they can add on another 40% onto the fees and that’s just where it just keeps escalating.”
Frank said her office has questions about what happens if court-ordered costs were converted into civil liens and whether that means a person still has not completed their sentence.
“There are going to have to be some test cases that will bring to light some things that should be corrected," she told ABC Action News.
Frank encourages people with questions in Hillsborough County to go to this link to learn if they owe any money to the county.
One local state senator is calling for changes to prevent money from serving as a barrier to vote. Senator Darryl Rouson, of St. Petersburg told ABC Action News he wants to make sure former felons can register to vote, even if they still owe court fines as part of their sentence.
"Maybe we should create some amnesty. Maybe we should create some payment plans or an ability to reduce the fine down to something that a person can afford to pay," Rouson said.
Rouson said he plans to meet with fellow lawmakers from Pinellas County and Hillsborough County next month to discuss if there is any action the legislature can take to make sure money isn't a condition for casting a ballot.