On Sunday, a federal judge struck down parts of a Florida law that required ex-felons to pay back court costs, fees, and victim restitution before registering to vote, a ruling that may have a significant impact in the nation’s largest swing state as the 2020 elections loom ever closer.
The roots of the case are in a statewide ballot initiative from 2018, known as Amendment 4, which sought to restore voting rights to ex-felons (except those convicted of murder, sexual assault) who had completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The amendment won wide support and bipartisan endorsements, eventually passing with over two-thirds of the vote.
The original creators of the amendment had expected that financial obligations would be included, but “all terms of their sentence” was not defined in the text of the amendment, leading to disputes as soon as it passed.
During the 2019 session, the Florida Legislature passed a bill to include all unpaid court fees, fines, and restitution in that definition of “all terms.” This meant that such amounts would have to be paid before an ex-felon would be allowed to register to vote.
Lawyers from The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) along with several other allied organizations representing more than a dozen ex-felons sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis immediately after he signed the bill into law, arguing that it constituted an illegal poll tax.
Two of the plaintiffs’ main arguments were the amounts of these unpaid costs — often hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, representing a very high burden for many ex-felons — as well as the challenges even calculating how much an ex-felon actually owed.
As the Miami Herald reported, during the trial back at the beginning of this month, the ex-felons’ legal team argued that the system was “hopelessly complicated,” and even the county and state officials frequently could not accurately determine how much was owed. The court heard testimony from the chief operating officer for the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court that he and four other colleagues once spent 12 to 15 hours working on what just one specific ex-felon owed.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle called the law a “pay-to-vote” system and unconstitutional to apply to “individuals who are otherwise eligible to vote but are genuinely unable to pay the required amount.” Hinkle also found the law’s requirement to pay “amounts that are unknown and cannot be determined with diligence” unconstitutional.
The state is likely to appeal, but, as CBS Miami political investigative reporter Jim DeFede noted, the courts seem inclined to fast track any future proceedings, in an effort to decisively resolve this case before the fall election.
At stake are hundreds of thousands of potential votes. Amendment 4 restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million ex-felons, and hundreds of thousands of them are believed to have been affected by the law’s payment requirement that the court struck down today.
Considering Florida’s recent election history of razor-thin margins — besides the infamous 2000 presidential election, the 2018 elections for governor, senate, and chief financial officer all ended in recounts — an influx of a few hundred thousand new voters could be a game changer.
And while Amendment 4 had bipartisan support, the partisan divisions on this law are stark: the bill was passed by the Republican-majority legislature and signed into law by the Republican Gov. DeSantis, and today’s court ruling was cheered by numerous Democratic and liberal groups.
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