Felons Who Can’t Afford Fines and Fees Shouldn’t be Stopped From Voting in Florida, Appeals Court Rules

February 20, 2020by Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)
Moments after Desmond Meade registered to vote under Amendment 4, his family and friends gathered for celebration at the Orange County Florida Supervisor of Elections office on Jan. 8, 2018. (Sara Espedido/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — A federal appeals court Wednesday upheld the limited injunction that allowed 17 ex-felons, including some from Orange County, to register to vote despite not being able to afford the fines and fees imposed as part of their sentence.

The ruling, by three judges from the 11th District Court of Appeals, will be appealed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the full federal appeals court, a spokesperson said.

The injunction still only applies to the 17 plaintiffs, but it further establishes the principle that mandating financial obligations as a requirement to voting is unconstitutional when would-be voters can’t afford to pay. But it also stresses that ex-felons still must pay fines and fees when and if they can afford to do so.

Amendment 4, which restored former felons’ voting rights after their sentence is completed, passed by 65% of the voters in 2018. But its implementing bill, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2019, included requirements that all fines, fees and restitution are considered part of a sentence must be paid back before an ex-felon’s voting rights are restored.

Democrats and other Amendment 4 backers called the new rules “poll taxes,” even though during the 2018 campaign, proponents often acknowledged that fines and restitution could be considered part of “all terms” that had to be completed before a former felon’s rights were restored.

The October ruling by Judge Robert Hinkle had indicated that the pay requirement was likely to be struck down. Hinkle also ruled that while the state can’t bar felons from voting for lack of money, it can require them to prove they are unable to pay the fines, fees and restitution costs associated with their sentence.

The appeals court ruling stated that the requirement to pay back financial obligations “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can — and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”

The ruling also cites Florida’s “long history of disenfranchising those who commit serious crimes, a common practice nationwide that dates to the very beginning of the republic.”

The state’s argument that “the purpose of Amendment 4 was not merely to re-enfranchise felons but to re-enfranchise felons who have ‘paid their debt to society’” is a “plausible characterization” but also “speculative.”

“It is altogether unclear whether the people of Florida would have voted differently if they knew that the Amendment … could not be constitutionally applied to those felons who were genuinely unable to pay despite their good faith efforts to do so,” it ruled.

While the ruling is limited to the 17 plaintiffs, the groups behind the lawsuit praised it as another step in expanding voting rights.

“Today’s decision protects against Florida’s efforts to crassly undermine the historic citizen-led voter initiative that restored voting eligibility to more than 1.4 million individuals,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation, NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “By affirming a preliminary finding that predicated the ability to vote based on wealth is unconstitutional — particularly when Black people with felony convictions disproportionately lack access to wealth — we are able to continue our fight to ensure that ultimately all Floridians whose voting rights were rightfully restored through Amendment 4 can exercise that right.”

Myrna Perez, the director of the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, said the court “told the state of Florida what the rest of America already knows. You can’t condition the right to vote on a person’s wealth.”

Helen Ferre, a governor’s office spokeswoman, issued a statement that “We disagree with the ruling. We are going to seek en banc review by the full court.”

The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the “fines and fees” requirement in an advisory opinion issued in January. But that ruling, which was requested by DeSantis, doesn’t affect the ongoing case before the appeals court.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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