Trial Over Felon Voting Rights Kicks Off in Florida

A federal trial began Monday over whether Florida can deny the right to vote for felons unable to pay court costs, restitution or fines.

Betty Riddle of Sarasota, Fla., holds the T-shirt she wore last month when she voted for the first time. She was barred from voting in Florida until a federal judge temporarily blocked the state from preventing her and 16 other felons from voting because of unpaid legal financial obligations. (Courtesy of Rickie Riddle via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — When Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment giving the right to vote to most felons in 2018, Latoya Moreland felt deeply moved. Finally, seven years after finishing a probation sentence for drug possession, the 39-year-old could join her adult children and vote.

But a few months after registering to vote, the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections sent Moreland a letter stating $645 in court fines would prevent her from voting.

“I was discouraged, I was sad,” Moreland said, testifying remotely for a federal trial that got underway Monday in Tallahassee with the aid of video- and teleconferencing software. “I ripped [the letter] up.”

“I’m on a fixed income and I don’t even have enough to cover my bills to help my family,” she said. “If I had the money, I would pay it.”

Moreland is one of 17 plaintiffs who sued state officials over SB 7066, a law requiring felons to pay all restitution, fines and fees before they are eligible to vote.

Republican lawmakers passed the controversial measure last 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.

The case being heard Monday, Jones v. DeSantis, could have lasting implications for politics statewide and nationally.

More than 774,000 felons have some type of legal financial obligation, according to a study submitted to the court.

The last two gubernatorial elections in Florida were decided by 1 percentage point. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump took the state with less than 120,000 votes.

In opening statements Monday, attorneys for the felons argued SB 7066 disproportionately affects minorities and the poor.

“The Florida Legislature and governor knew just what they were doing to black Floridians and did it anyway,” said Sean Morales-Doyle with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also contended felons must navigate a convoluted legal system to even find out how much they owe.

Florida does not have a statewide database for elections officials to check if felons paid all their fines and restitution. Some county elections supervisors have urged felons to register, even if they are unsure whether they owe anything.

“They didn’t just put a price tag on voting, they created a system where the voter does not what the price tag is,” Morales-Doyle said.

But Florida voters knew felons must pay all fines and fees for voting eligibility when they passed Amendment 4, attorneys for Governor Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and several supervisors of elections told the court.

“The ‘all terms of a sentence’ language is clear,” Mohammad Jazil of the Tallahassee firm Hopping Green & Sams told the court. “That language is unambiguous.”

Jazil argued felons have other ways to overcome their financial obligations and vote, including petitioning a court to convert the fines to community service hours, asking a collections company or victim to forgive the debts, or seeking full clemency through the state.

“The system is not perfect, but the system gets it right most of the time,” Jazil said.

Last week, state elections officials unveiled new procedures to check voting rolls for felons who owe outstanding restitution, fines and fees.

Daniel Smith, a political science professor from the University of Florida, called the new process “a hot mess.”

“I shudder to think about what’s going to happen in a state with a long and sordid history of database matching,” Smith testified Monday. “There is going to be a tremendous amount of false positives and false negatives. I have grave concerns about individuals not being able to vote who should be able to vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, Campaign Legal Center and other criminal justice groups brought the case on behalf of the plaintiffs last summer.

In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida issued an injunction blocking the law for the 17 plaintiffs in the case. In February, the 11th Circuit upheld the injunction and later denied the state’s request for an en banc rehearing.

Earlier this month, Hinkle, a Bill Clinton appointee, signaled any decision on the case will apply to all affected felons in Florida, not just the 17 plaintiffs protected by the initial injunction.

At the end of her testimony, Moreland said she wanted the chance to join her daughter and vote in the November election.

“So many people fought, so many people died, so much blood was shed for people to be able to vote,” she said.

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