Judge Rules Florida Cannot Base Felon Voting Rights on Ability to Pay

TALLAHASSEE (CN) – Florida cannot deny the right to vote to felons unable to pay restitution or fines, a federal judge ruled late Friday.

In his order, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida halted the implementation of SB 7066, which required felons to pay all restitution, fines and fees before they are eligible to vote.

Republican lawmakers passed the law earlier this year, just months after Florida voters overwhelming approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The amendment did not mention restitution or fines.

Hinkle’s ruling, however, only applies to the 17 plaintiffs in the case and suggests the state set up a process for felons to prove their inability to pay.

Former felon Brett DuVall, right, kisses his wife Dottie as they celebrate after he registered to vote at the Supervisor of Elections office on Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

“When a state wrongly prevents an eligible citizen from voting, the harm to the citizen is irreparable,” Hinkle wrote in the 55-page order. “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.”

The judge’s ruling still leaves an estimated 1.4 million felons in limbo.

Hinkle set a trial date for next year, well after local elections in November and the presidential primaries in March.

In addition, the Florida Supreme Court is reviewing a petition by the governor to define “all terms of a sentence” in the constitutional amendment to see if restitution and fines are implied in the language.

But even if the Supreme Court decides the constitutional amendment requires felons to pay all restitution and fines, Hinkle said the U.S. Constitution bars voting eligibility on an individual’s financial resources. He likened that to only giving the right to vote to felons with a net worth of $100,000 or more.

“Would anyone contend this was constitutional?” he wrote. “One hopes not. An official who adopts a constitutional theory that would approve such a statute needs a new constitutional theory.”

In a study submitted to the court, Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, found nearly 80% of felons have outstanding debts that could prevent them from voting.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Campaign Legal Center and other criminal justice groups represented the plaintiffs in the consolidated case.

“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.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prior to the passage of Amendment 4, Florida had the highest number of disenfranchised felons in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project. The Sunshine State was one of only three states that banned ex-convicts from voting for life.

In the first three months after the amendment took effect in January, more than 2,000 formerly incarcerated Floridians registered to vote. Advocates say thousands more have registered since.

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