In a reversal, a court said Floridians who had completed sentences for felonies must pay fines and fees before voting. The State Constitution was amended in 2018 to restore their rights.
By Patricia Mazzei
MIAMI — Four months after a federal judge ruled that it was akin to an unconstitutional poll tax for Florida to require that people with serious criminal convictions pay court fines and fees before they can register to vote, an appeals court narrowly overturned that decision on Friday.
The court’s 6-4 ruling dealt a significant blow to civil rights groups that have fought to expand the voter rolls with hundreds of thousands of people who had completed prison time and parole for felony convictions. It also undermined what had seemed like a major referendum victory in 2018 and served as another reminder of the decisive role that a slew of legal cases could play before the presidential election.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta ruled that a Florida law passed in 2019 was constitutional, reversing the lower court ruling in May that said it discriminated against people who had been convicted of felonies, many of whom are indigent, by imposing an unlawful “pay-to-vote system.”
The legal battle followed an amendment to the State Constitution in 2018, when Florida’s voters decided to end the disenfranchisement of those convicted of felonies, except for murder and sexual offenses. Florida is a perennially close state in presidential elections, and any effort to limit ballot access could play a role in November, particularly if it affects a mostly low-income and disadvantaged population likely to lean more toward Democrats. The deadline to register is Oct. 5.
This week, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas could keep restricting mail voting for people under 65, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the mailing of absentee ballots should be paused until it decides whether the Green Party’s presidential nominee should be on the ballot. Both were seen as potential impediments to voting that were likely to benefit Republicans.
In the Florida case, the appeals court sided with the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and found that the felons who sued had failed to prove a violation to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
“If a State may decide that those who commit serious crimes are presumptively unfit for the franchise,” the 11th Circuit ruled, “it may also conclude that those who have completed their sentences are the best candidates for re-enfranchisement.”
Five of the six judges who supported the 60-page decision were appointed to the court by President Trump. Two of those judges were also former Florida Supreme Court justices named to that bench by Mr. DeSantis. (One of the former justices, Judge Barbara Lagoa, was named by Mr. Trump this week as among those he would consider nominating to a potential future seat on the Supreme Court.)
Restoring felons’ voting rights could vastly grow the electorate in the nation’s biggest presidential battleground state. An expert for the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups testified at trial that more than 774,000 felons in Florida owe legal financial obligations.
“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the A.C.L.U.’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy.”
The civil rights groups representing the felons pledged to keep fighting and could appeal to the Supreme Court. But the court has already sided once in the case with the state of Florida, rejecting an emergency application to lift the appeals court’s stay while the outcome was pending.
In a statement, Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for Mr. DeSantis, said Friday’s decision underscored that Amendment 4, as the referendum was known, would restore the rights of felons only if they had completed the entirety of sentences, including paying court fines and fees. (At the time Amendment 4 passed, Florida was one of three states that prevented people with felony records from voting.)
“All terms of a sentence means all terms,” Mr. Piccolo said. “There are multiple avenues to restore rights, pay off debts and seek financial forgiveness from one’s victims. Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive.”
Four judges dissented in a pair of lengthy and scathing opinions. “I doubt that today’s decision — which blesses Florida’s neutering of Amendment 4 — will be viewed as kindly by history,” Judge Adalberto Jordan, who was appointed to the appeals court by President Barack Obama, wrote in one of them.
The DeSantis administration has argued that voters knew that felons would have to pay their outstanding debts before becoming eligible to vote. The state has no centralized system to let felons know how much they might owe, and the appeals court said states were not required to provide a process for felons to learn whether they are eligible.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which organized the Amendment 4 campaign, has raised about $4 million to help more than 4,000 “returning citizens” pay their outstanding court fines and fees, according to Neil G. Volz, the coalition’s political director.
Florida’s division of elections had received 85,000 voter registrations as of May from former felons who believed they had been re-enfranchised by Amendment 4. The division must screen those registrations to see whether the would-be voters had paid their financial obligations. Only then could any of them be removed from the voter rolls, the appeals court said.
“Florida has yet to complete its screening of any of the registrations,” the appeals ruling noted. “Until it does, it will not have credible and reliable information supporting anyone’s removal from the voter rolls, and all 85,000 felons will be entitled to vote.”