By Bobby Caina Calvan
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge is considering whether Florida lawmakers exceeded their authority by requiring former felons to pay fines and settle other legal debts as a condition of regaining their right to vote.
The case is one of several ongoing legal battles that underscore Florida’s often-pivotal role in national politics, especially with its history for razor-thin election margins. Legal skirmishes have also erupted over early voting at college campuses, while concerns linger about the integrity of computer systems because of evidence of outside hacking.
As many as 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentences regained voting privileges under a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters last fall.
But the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year passed a bill — later signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis — stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other financial obligations to complete their sentences.
Voting rights groups immediately sued for a temporary injunction that would allow felons to continue registering to vote and cast ballots until the merits of the law can be fully adjudicated.
Attorneys for the state argued that the Legislature’s requirements were reasonable interpretations of the language in Amendment 4. They said lawmakers allowed felons to seek waivers from a judge or ask that some of their financial obligations be converted to community service. They argued the stipulation did no irrevocable harm to felons seeking the right to vote.
But U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle told them that denying a person the right to vote automatically leads to irreparable harm.
“It’s a no-brainer,” the judge said.
Later, Hinkle asked if the Legislature’s actions were politically motivated, and whether Republican lawmakers sought to disenfranchise African Americans who historically have favored Democrats.
Hinkle, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, asked pointedly if the “intent was to help Republicans and not to help Democrats?”
While those questions weren’t directly addressed in the voluminous court file, he told attorneys, “you might as well know I’ve got these questions.”
By one count, more than 436,000 former felons in Florida — some of whom had already registered to vote under the constitutional measure known as Amendment 4 — will remain ineligible to vote because of the legislative intervention.
Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, analyzed data from the state Department of Corrections and 58 of the state’s 67 counties. Testifying on behalf of voting rights advocates, he said his research revealed the shortcomings of state and local systems in determining whether a former felon is eligible to vote, because accurate records of legal debts may not always be immediately available.
Smith testified that his analysis also revealed a racial component, noting that black former prisoners were more likely to owe money after their release than their white counterparts.
“The law serves no legitimate purpose. It won’t make people more able to pay, just less able to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, an ACLU attorney, told the court.
Attorneys for the state declined to talk with reporters after Monday’s hearing.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Helen Ferre, asserted there was no irreparable harm because the felons previously did not have the right to vote.
“To date, no Supervisor of Elections has removed a felon from the voting rolls for having outstanding obligations to the court,” Ferre said in an email.
Monday was the final day for Floridians to register to vote Nov. 5, when Miami, Orlando and other cities hold general elections.
DeSantis had asked the federal court to delay its hearing until the Florida Supreme Court could issue a legally non-binding advisory opinion, which the governor hoped might help the federal court navigate the case.
Hinkle, however, declined to postpone the hearing, which is scheduled to continue Tuesday.
Lee Hoffman, 60, told the court he had been excited to vote for the first time in his life, after a string of convictions that sent him to prison. Now a free man, he said he registered to vote soon after Amendment 4 went into place, despite discovering later that he still owed $449 in fees related to his previous legal trouble.
“I was so ecstatic,” said Hoffman. “For the first time in my life, I wanted to be counted.”
His attorney, Jonathan Diaz of the Campaign Legal Center, said Florida has become “the epicenter of U.S. politics” because of its potential role in deciding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and its history of high-profile controversies at the ballot box.
“When the stakes are very high, politicians and those with high interest in the outcomes want to make the system as favorable to them as possible,” Diaz said.
“The democratic process works best when everybody has the ability to participate, and your ability to vote should not depend on your ability to pay for it.