by The Editorial Board (The New York Times)
Who gets to cast a ballot in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, could well determine who will be the next leader of the country, and in the middle of the biggest global crisis in generations.
With stakes this high, literally every vote matters. That’s why a ruling on Sunday by a federal judge in Tallahassee is so important.
The opinion, by Judge Robert L. Hinkle of U.S. District Court, is 125 pages long, but nearly everything you need to know is summed up in its opening sentence: “The State of Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money.”
That system violates at least two provisions of the Constitution, Judge Hinkle ruled: the Equal Protection Clause and the 24th Amendment, which bans poll taxes.
The court’s decision, following an eight-day trial by videoconference, resolved a challenge to a law Florida’s Republican-led legislature passed last year. The law, known as S.B. 7066 and approved along strict party lines, requires Floridians with a criminal record to pay off all fines, fees and restitution owed in connection with their sentence before being eligible to vote.
The law was a response to what had happened in the 2018 midterms, when Floridians overwhelmingly voted to amend the State Constitution to eliminate a lifetime ban on voting by people with a criminal conviction who had completed their sentences. Under the ban, roughly 1.4 million Floridians, disproportionately poorer people and people of color, were denied a voice in the electoral process. The amendment automatically restored voting rights to all but those convicted of murder and felony sex offenses.
It was one of the biggest one-time enfranchisements in American history and part of a decades-long trend in dozens of states to make it easier for people with criminal records to get their voting rights back. It was also a bipartisan success, passing with more than 64 percent of the vote in a year when Republican candidates won both the governorship and a contested Senate seat.
Why wasn’t that good enough for Republican lawmakers? Because, to put it bluntly, they are terrified of losing power, and they believe that as the number of people voting goes up, their odds of winning go down.
But they didn’t want to say that directly, so instead they passed S.B. 7066, on the grounds that the amendment restored voting rights upon the completion of “all terms of sentence, including parole and probation.” Floridians understood when they voted for this, Republicans said, that “all terms” included financial obligations.
Judge Hinkle wasn’t buying it. “The voters’ primary motivation plainly was to restore the vote to deserving felons at the appropriate time — to show a measure of forgiveness and to welcome even felons back into the electorate.”
And as Republican lawmakers knew when they passed their legislation, a vast majority of people convicted of crimes are poor and will never be able to pay off their dues to the state. Between 2013 and 2018, Florida courts assessed more than $1 billion in fines and fees, labeling more than 80 percent of that amount unlikely ever to be paid.
Take Raquel Wright, a plaintiff in the case, who owes roughly $54,000 in fines and fees; her part-time work pays her $450 per month. But even less extreme examples show the absurdity of the state’s demand. According to an expert witness for the plaintiffs, a majority of Floridians with convictions owe at least $500. That may not seem like much, until you remember that 40 percent of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency expense — and that was before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out tens of millions of jobs in a matter of weeks.
As Judge Hinkle wrote, “One cannot get blood from a turnip or money from a person unable to pay.”
Just trying to calculate what a person owes is often hard or impossible, the judge said, because the state keeps no centralized records, and those records that do exist are often unclear or contradictory. By Florida’s own estimates, it will take nearly six years to determine who owes what.
None of this accounts for all the additional expenses associated with paying court debts. Want a copy of your original judgment of conviction? It will cost you. Maybe you’d prefer to pay your fees directly? Watch out for the 4 percent surcharge. How about setting up a payment plan? That’ll be $25 — better, at least, than being sent to a collection agency, which will skim 40 percent of your payment off the top.
Florida has, in short, “shown a staggering inability to administer the pay-to-vote system,” Judge Hinkle wrote. He noted that he gave lawmakers ample warning and opportunity to fix the problems in a preliminary ruling last fall, and yet they have done essentially nothing.
Sunday’s ruling is a monumental victory for voting rights. Still, it can’t fix the damage Republicans have already inflicted, by intentionally confusing hundreds of thousands of Floridians about their rights and frightening them away from the ballot box. As Judge Hinkle rightly recognized, the incentive to stay home is especially strong for those people “who have served their time, gone straight and wish to avoid entanglement with the criminal-justice system.”
These potential voters are understandably skeptical of a government that has shown over and again how little it respects their constitutional rights or cares for their participation. The dilemma is that there is only one antidote to this systemic suppression: Vote. It won’t be easy, especially in the face of pandemic-related restrictions, but Floridians who believe in a fair and open democracy must spread the word, help their fellow citizens register and ensure as many of them as possible get to the polls, both in November and in the years to come.