Florida wrestles over felon voting rights restoration

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Karen Leicht is a convicted felon from Miami and a self-described “cat lady” who wants to vote.

Although Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for most felons, she told a Senate committee Monday that she hasn’t registered because she wasn’t sure if she was eligible: She completed a 30-month prison sentence and three months’ probation for a conviction of insurance fraud she said she was unwittingly caught up in.

“It was my complete and total understanding that at that point … I was free. I now have a passport; I was able to travel to Italy to my son’s wedding this last year — so exciting! I’m like a citizen again, except for I still can’t vote,” she said. “I need to make sure that when I go and register to vote that I am not going to commit another crime, because I’m not going back inside. I was there once; I will not going back again. I work full time, I’m a caregiver for my mother, I’m a cat lady and I pay my restitution to this day every month.”

That restitution totals $59 million. And that’s the problem. She’ll never pay it off.

Her story is part of the debate lawmakers are wrestling with as they try to decide the definition of completing a felony sentence. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved a bill after hearing Leicht’s testimony that makes paying restitution a requirement to be able to register to vote. But even though Leicht will never pay back the ordered restitution, two senators — a Republican and a Democrat — told her to register to vote while lawmakers sort out the issues. The constitutional amendment says felons who complete their sentence and who didn’t commit murder of a felon sex crime can now vote.

“Go register to vote,” said Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo. “This is subject to interpretation; there is some confusion. You’re not intentionally committing a bad act.”

He told her the state attorney in Miami has already said she won’t prosecute felons who register to vote if they do so believing they aren’t breaking the law.

“Oh my God! I’m shaking! That’s so incredible! Thank you so much!” a clearly elated Leicht said. In a rarity in legislative meetings, many in the crowd burst into applause.

Even Republican committee Chairman Sen. Keith Perry said she should register to vote, even though his interpretation of the amendment language is that she shouldn’t be allowed to do so. He called himself a supporter of felon voting rights restoration but said the language advocates put into the amendment means all court-ordered penalties, including financial obligations, need to be fulfilled.

“If you need to go register to vote, go register to vote. I would encourage you to do that,” he said. “As a citizen, you didn’t swear an oath to uphold the constitution. I did, so I take it very seriously.”

He added that he doesn’t want to put up roadblocks preventing registration and the bill could change going forward.

After the meeting, Leicht cautiously said she would register based on what was said in the committee meeting.

“If he didn’t say it on record, I’d still be afraid,” she said. “I do not want to reoffend.”

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