(CN) — A federal judge tossed out the majority of a Florida law on Sunday that denied poor felons the right to vote unless they paid all court fees and fines, allowing hundreds of thousands of state residents to register in time for Election Day in the fall.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle agreed with the class action plaintiffs made up of disenfranchised felons represented by the American Civil Liberties Union that the law acted as a poll tax.
“The Twenty-Fourth Amendment precludes Florida from conditioning voting in federal elections on payment of these fees and costs,” he wrote in a 125-page order.
Prior to the approval of a constitutional amendment in 2018 by almost two thirds of residents, felons who completed their sentences were not allowed to vote. Following the amendment's passage, Republican lawmakers created the law that required released felons to pay all court fees and fines before they could register to vote.
While Hinkle gutted the law, he did not rule it entirely unconstitutional, finding the state could set up conditions to reenfranchise felons.
"But the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny," he wrote. "Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed system, this one falls short in substantial respects."
Hinkle, a Bill Clinton appointee, called the law, which was passed last year in a strictly partisan vote, a "pay-to-vote-system" that effectively left out those who could not afford to pay.
"This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay,” he wrote.
Arguments in the case were held via teleconference and wrapped up May 6. Leah Alden of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund argued that the law discriminated against black felons, who were less likely to have the ability to cover all the related costs.
“The Florida Legislature crafted [a legal financial obligations] requirement that it knew would disproportionately harm black voters,” she said.
Hinkle was not convinced of the argument, but did order that state officials inform felons how much they owe and if they are eligible to register. He wrote that if the state did not answer within 21 days, officials would have to allow that person to register.
"Florida can no longer deny people access to the ballot box based on unpaid court costs and fees, nor can they condition rights restoration on restitution and fines that a person cannot afford to pay," said Jonathan Diaz, of the Campaign Legal Center, and one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in a statement Sunday evening.
Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with ACLU's Voting Rights Project called the decision a "tremendous victory for voting rights."
“The court recognized that conditioning a person's right to vote on their ability to pay is unconstitutional," she said in a statement. "This ruling means hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to rejoin the electorate and participate in upcoming elections."
A request for comment by Governor DeSantis was not immediately returned Sunday evening.
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