Major Voting Rights Victory in Florida as Judge Rules on Felon Voting Rights
The ACLU celebrated a judge’s ruling Friday in Florida on felon voting rights stating, “The court’s decision is clear: the right to vote cannot be denied to anyone based on their inability to pay.”
In a major victory for felon voting rights advocates, a judge ruled on Friday that Florida can not block people with felony convictions from registering to vote if they are unable to pay fines related to their conviction.
The ruling comes almost one year after voters in Florida in the November 2018 election approved Amendment 4. Amendment 4 granted the restoration of voting rights to persons with felony convictions after completion of “all terms of their sentence”, with the exception of persons convicted of murder and sexual offenses. Amendment 4 passed with approximately 65% of the vote.
The restoration of felon voting rights in Florida restored the right to vote to an estimated 1.4 million persons in Florida, potentially drastically changing the voter landscape in the traditionally conservative state.
Florida Legislators Block Restoration of Felon Voting Rights
In response to the passage of the amendment, Florida Republicans, which control the state legislature in Florida, passed SB 7066 requiring all persons convicted of a felony pay back all financial obligations related to their conviction before having their right to vote reinstated.
Felon voting rights activists blasted SB 7066 as a “poll tax” reminiscent of Jim Crow era election laws passed to prevent African-Americans from voting.
At the time the ACLU called SB 7066 “an affront to Florida voters” which “will inevitably prevent individuals from voting based on the size of one’s bank account.”
“If this bill passes, it will undoubtedly continue to disenfranchise those who have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” said the ACLU’s political director, Kirk Bailey, in a statement. “This is exactly what we were worried about from the beginning – legislative attempts to undermine the will of the people who voted for second chances and to rid Florida of the last vestiges of its Jim Crow era past.”
“The House bill raises serious constitutional concerns,” he added. “We urge lawmakers to uphold the will of Florida voters and withdraw this deficient bill.
Previously, the only way for a convicted felon in Florida to regain the right to vote was through a clemency appeal but the process was struck down by a federal court for being unconstitutional last year. The court ruled it gave “unfettered discretion” to four partisan politicians.
Tallahassee Case Temporarily Restores Felon Voting Rights
In response to SB 7066, 17 plaintiffs as part of Jones vs Florida Governor Ron DeSantis filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida before U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle challenging the legality of forcing the plaintiffs to pay off their financial debts before restoring their right to vote.
Hinkle ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and temporarily blocked the implementation of SB 7066.
“When a state wrongly prevents an eligible citizen from voting, the harm to the citizen is irreparable,” Hinkle wrote in his 55-page decision. “Each of these plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state’s only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay.”
“Would anyone contend this was constitutional?” Hinkle wrote. “One hopes not. An official who adopts a constitutional theory that would approve such a statute needs a new constitutional theory.”
Hinkle’s decision only technically applies to the 17 plaintiffs. However, as the N.Y. Times explains, “the principle behind the ruling applies to all people convicted of felonies and will require the state to change its repayment policy if it stands,” as Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times.
“Today’s ruling is a huge win for our brave clients whose voting rights have been protected by the federal court, which blocked a Florida law that created wealth-based hurdles to voting and undermined Floridians’ overwhelming approval of Amendment 4,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “The court’s decision is clear: the right to vote cannot be denied to anyone based on their inability to pay. The state must create a clear and unencumbered process that provides Florida’s returning citizens the ability to vote.”
The decision could set up a system whereby felon voting rights are restored after a person proves their inability to pay the associated fees.
The Hinkle verdict is a big step forward for voting rights activists, but returning the right to vote to former felons in Florida is still far from over. Florida could appeal Hinkle’s verdict, change the law in the state Legislature or wait until a trial scheduled for April 2020 rules further on the legality of SB 7066.
Hinkle has also asked the Florida Supreme Court to review the definition of Amendment 4’s “all terms of a sentence”
In addition, the Florida Supreme Court is reviewing a petition by the governor to issue a non-binding opinion on the definition of “all terms of a sentence” as written in Amendment 4 to determine if restitution and fines are implied in the language. Oral arguments for that begin November 6, 2019.