By Amy Gardner and Lori Rozsa
The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Thursday to overturn a federal appeals court’s decision that blocked some Florida felons’ eligibility to participate in elections — a major blow to efforts to restore voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people in the battleground state. The action lets stand a temporary halt by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit of a judge’s order that had cleared the way for hundreds of thousands of felons in the state to register to vote.
In early July, the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, the ACLU and other plaintiffs petitioned the high court to lift the stay, arguing that the appeals court decision had “thrown the election rules into chaos.” But on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied that request. Three liberal justices noted their dissent, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing that the court’s order “prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor.”
As is common in emergency requests, the majority did not offer a reasoning for its action.
Paul Smith, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, said he was “deeply disappointed” with the order. “Florida’s voters spoke loud and clear when nearly two-thirds of them supported rights restoration at the ballot box in 2018,” he said in a statement. “The Supreme Court stood by as the Eleventh Circuit prevented hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees. We look forward to continuing to fight for Florida voters so they can participate in the General Election in November.”
A spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier this month, his office said the governor would not comment until there is a final appeals court ruling.
It’s unclear whether the issue will be resolved in time for the November presidential election or whether the final ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The appeals court has scheduled a hearing on the issue for Aug. 18 — the same day as Florida’s primary election.
The reenfranchisement of felons has been a contentious issue in the swing state since voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018. The amendment — which more than 65 percent of voters supported — cleared the way for most felons, except those who had been convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses, to register to vote.
An estimated 85,000 felons have registered since Amendment 4 took effect in January 2019. Previously, Florida had been one of a handful of states that barred felons from voting for life.
A law signed by DeSantis last year appeared to thwart the potential reach of Amendment 4, adding a requirement that fines, fees and restitution be paid first. Without a system in place to help felons get the information, they were left on their own to find out whether and how much they owe.
That created “an administrative nightmare,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said when he ruled against the state in May, finding that the law amounted to an unconstitutional voting tax.
Lawyers for the government, meanwhile, argued in their response to the Supreme Court that proponents of Amendment 4 had campaigned for its passage with the proviso that it “could” give felons a second chance “upon payment of fines, fees and restitution.”
Supporters of the amendment “knew that felon reenfranchisement ‘polls higher’ in Florida when payment of financial punishment was required, and that there would be a ‘harder fight to win 60% + 1% approval’ required to amend the Florida Constitution without that requirement,” the lawyers wrote.
In numerous voting-related cases decided near election dates, the Supreme Court has declined to intervene, citing the Purcell Principle, a legal doctrine arising from the 2006 case Purcell v. Gonzalez. In that case, the high court ruled that “court orders affecting elections, especially conflicting orders, can themselves result in voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls. As an election draws closer, that risk will increase.”
The state of Florida argued that Hinkle’s decision had bucked that principle.
“Far from creating the chaos described by applicants, the Eleventh Circuit’s order actually quells the chaos created by the district court’s unprecedented injunction,” the state’s lawyers wrote.
In her dissent, Sotomayor argued the opposite, saying the Supreme Court’s decision “allows the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to disrupt Florida’s election process just days before the July 20 voter-registration deadline for the August primary.”
“This Court’s inaction continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement,” she added. “Ironically, this Court has wielded Purcell as a reason to forbid courts to make voting safer during a pandemic, overriding two federal courts because any safety related changes supposedly came too close to election day.”
The case is Raysor v. DeSantis.
Voting rights activists worry that the uncertainty around Florida’s law now will discourage people with felony records from trying to register even if they are eligible.
“Having cried and walked with numerous families and individuals impacted by this legal roller coaster over the last year, we are continually focused on reminding people that this is not a political science exercise to the people directly impacted by these type of decisions,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the coalition, said: “We are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision but not deterred. Where others see obstacles, we see opportunities. We know a more vibrant democracy is a stronger democracy, and that the voices of the people will be heard.”
Meade spent three years in prison on a drug charge. He registered to vote in January 2019 and later found out he still owed about $1,000 in fines, fees and restitution. He paid them, and he plans to vote in August for the first time in 30 years.
His group is helping others pay their fines if they can’t afford to do so, but they can’t reach all felons in the state, and sometimes finding out whether they owe anything is difficult, even with the help of pro bono lawyers who are working with the group.
Hinkle’s ruling in May ordered the state to tell felons whether they are eligible to vote and what they owe. If they didn’t get an answer from the state within 21 days, they could register to vote.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court, which leans conservative, has twice agreed with Hinkle, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton. But the state’s latest appeal to the full circuit resulted in a freeze of his order until after the August hearing.
Rozsa reported from Broward County, Fla. Robert Barnes contributed to this report.