by Amy Gardner (The Washington Post)
A federal judge has gutted a Florida state law requiring felons to pay all court fines and fees before they can register to vote, clearing the way for thousands of Floridians to register in time for the November presidential election.
Republican lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) pushed the measure after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to expand voting rights to felons who have completed “all terms of their sentence including probation and parole.”
The law’s backers said it was necessary to clarify the amendment, while critics said Republicans were trying to limit the effects of what would have been the largest expansion of the state’s electorate since poll taxes and literacy tests were outlawed during the civil rights era. The law, critics said, had made it virtually impossible for most felons to register, either because of an inability to pay or because the state offered no way for them to know what they owed or whether they had already paid. U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle agreed, likening the restrictive legislation to a tax and concluding that the state had not created a system that would allow felons to identify their financial obligations.
“The Twenty-Fourth Amendment precludes Florida from conditioning voting in federal elections on payment of these fees and costs,” wrote Hinkle, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, referring to the constitutional amendment that bans poll taxes. Hinkle did not find, however, that the law intentionally discriminated on the basis of race, as the plaintiffs had argued, because of the disproportionate number of African Americans among the state’s population of felons.
Hinkle’s order requires the state to tell felons whether they are eligible to vote and what they owe. It also requires the state to allow any felon to register if they are not given an answer within 21 days. No one will face perjury charges for registering and voting through this process, he ordered. In Florida, felons must pay court debts before they can vote. But with no system to do so, many have found it impossible.
Advocates testified during an eight-day trial earlier this spring that the law had imposed a chilling effect on efforts to register felons who had completed their sentences. Florida’s voter registration application requires residents to attest that they have “completed all terms” of their sentence. Without being able to determine whether they still owed fines, fees or restitution, many hesitated to sign the application for fear that they could be charged with perjury. “This court decision adds another remarkable chapter in our fight as returning citizens to participate in our democracy,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “We will remain vigilant in our commitment to place people over politics, and ensure that all returning citizens, no matter how they may vote, have an opportunity to possess what we believe to be the most endearing sign of citizenship, the right to vote.”
Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who litigated the case, said: “The court recognized that conditioning a person’s right to vote on their ability to pay is unconstitutional. This ruling means hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to rejoin the electorate and participate in upcoming elections. This is a tremendous victory for voting rights.” Amendment 4 passed with 65 percent of the vote in November 2018, attracting support from across the political spectrum, including from the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, groups backed by the libertarian Koch network and the Christian Coalition. The nonprofit Florida Rights Restoration Coalition estimated that as many 1.5 million felons previously barred from voting would be able to do so in this crucial battleground state.
Those expectations shriveled in the intervening two years, however, as a result of Senate Bill 7066’s requirements that fines, fees and restitution be paid first. Today, advocates estimate that fewer than 50,000 felons have registered.
They hope Friday’s ruling will reverse that disappointing result. Although registration efforts nationwide continue to be hampered by the coronavirus shutdown, Amendment 4 backers promised to redouble their efforts to register thousands of felons between now and November. “We are looking forward to utilizing this court ruling to expand on our registration efforts to create a more inclusive democracy, make voting exciting again, and to coalesce the voices of returning citizens to create a more just and equitable justice system,” Meade said. Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said Sunday night that the governor’s office is reviewing the ruling.
The office of Secretary of State Laurel Lee, also a defendant in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer defending state officials in the legal challenge, said in court this month that lawmakers, who approved Senate Bill 7066 on a strict party-line vote, had an obligation to be “faithful stewards” of Amendment 4 by clarifying how it would work. “The ‘all terms of sentence’ language is clear,” Jazil said. “That language is unambiguous. That language includes the payment of fines, fees, costs, restitution and all other financial terms of the sentence, before the restoration of voting rights.”