Judge’s ruling could allow ex-felons in state to vote
More than 400,000 former felons in Florida are now awaiting a ruling by a federal judge in Tallahassee that could pave the way for them to vote, even if they can’t afford to pay the fines and fees issued as part of their sentences.
Closing arguments on Wednesday in the closely watched trial in Tallahassee centered on whether the 2019 law requiring fines, fees and restitution be paid before being allowed to vote was racially motivated and whether throwing out the law would invalidate the voter-approved Amendment 4 itself.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who had previously issued an injunction allowing the lawsuit’s 17 plaintiffs to register to vote if they could prove an “inability to pay,” said last month he would apply his new ruling to all ex-felons who can’t afford to pay. Hinkle said he was planning to issue a ruling “as soon as I can.”
The trial, which began last week, stems from a lawsuit by progressive and voting rights groups claiming the fines and fees requirement in SB 7066, the bill carrying out Amendment 4, is racially discriminatory and the equivalent of a “poll tax” banned by the U.S.
Amendment 4, which restores former felons right to vote if they’ve completed their sentence, was passed by Florida voters in 2018. The 2019 law passed by the Legislature included all “fines, fees, and restitution” as a part of a sentence, and a large segment of the 1.4 million former felons in Florida were unable to register.
Leah Aden, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued that even if Republicans in the Legislature had partisan motives in implementing restrictions, their partisan reasoning was, in fact, racebased.
Republicans assumed that making it harder for exfelons to vote would largely impact African Americans who traditionally vote for Democrats, Aden argued.
“Intentionally targeting a particular race’s access to the franchise, because its members vote for a particular party in a predictable manner, constitutes discriminatory purpose,” Aden said. “This is so even absent any evidence of race-based hatred.”
Hinkle agreed, saying, “there plainly is a racial impact. … If felons are returned to the franchise, the percentage of African Americans in the electorate will go up. I think that’s what the record establishes beyond any doubt.”
The potentially 400,000 new voters could play a major role in the November election, in which Florida will be a key swing state in a matchup between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Julie Ebenstein, an attorney for the ACLU, said thousands of ex-felons also don’t know how much they owe and therefore don’t know if they’re eligible to vote.
“If the basis for passing this law was to have made things easy to administer, we would submit … they couldn’t have made [it] more difficult for qualified voters to determine whether they’re eligible to vote.”
Mohammad Jazil, the attorney for Secretary Laurel Lee, argued that the 17 former felons who sued had no standing for a lawsuit about felons who don’t know how much they owe.
“Each of the individual plaintiffs is registered to vote and is currently registered to vote,” Jazil said “… We don’t have any individual plaintiffs who aren’t registered. And, your honor, that’s the first point when it comes to the injury” they claim.
Jazil also argued the 2019 law is actually more lenient than the original amendment because it creates legal pathways for felons to have fees and fines waived.
He warned that including an “ability to pay” provision could mean the entire law is unconstitutional because it infringed on the governor’s clemency powers, leaving Amendment 4 without any way of being enforced at all.
“The court would in my mind be placed in a position where it would have to issue an injunction directing the governor, the Secretary of State and supervisors of elections from implementing 7066 because of the explicit violation of the separation of power provision in the Florida constitution,” Jazil said. “We did not set loose the dogs of war, but we must go where they lead us.”
Dani Lang, an attorney for the Campaign Legal Center, called that argument “cynical” and said Lee can’t claim an “ability to pay” provision was unconstitutional at the same time she recommended adding just such a mechanism.
A federal judge in Tallahassee will decide whether more than 400,000 former felons in Florida can vote, even if they can’t afford to pay the fines and fees issued as part of their sentences.