Felons who have completed their sentences will not have their voting rights restored as intended by the voters who passed Amendment 4, until all fines, fees, costs and financial terms of those sentences are met.
“Had Florida wanted to create a system to obstruct, impede, and impair the ability of felons to vote under Amendment 4, it could not have come up with a better one.”
– 11th Circuit Court Judge Adalberto Jordan
The 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals in a 6-4 ruling struck a major blow to voting-rights groups that challenged the law, approved by Republican legislators and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year. The law was aimed at carrying out the 2018 constitutional amendment, which restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation.”
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told reporters Friday evening that the ruling was “a severe blow to democracy and also to the hundreds of thousands of returning citizens that want nothing more than to feel like they’re part of this country.”
The decision reversed a May ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who said Florida could not deny voting rights to felons who genuinely could not afford to pay court-ordered debts. Hinkle’s ruling would have allowed hundreds of thousands of felons to register and vote in this year’s presidential election without paying outstanding legal financial obligations.
DeSantis appealed the ruling, and the 11th Circuit made the unusual move of granting his request for a hearing.
Friday’s 60-page majority opinion disputed arguments by plaintiffs that linking voting rights and finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.” Chief Circuit Judge William Holcombe Pryor Jr. wrote that Amendment 4 and the 2019 law are “markedly different” from poll taxes.
“They do not make affluence or the payment of a fee an ‘electoral standard.’ They instead impose a different electoral standard: to regain the right to vote, felons, rich and poor, must complete all terms of their criminal sentences,” he said.
Unlike a poll tax, the requirement to fulfill all terms of a sentence is “highly relevant to voter qualifications,” Pryor said.
“It promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote,” Pryor wrote. “Monetary provisions of a sentence are no less a part of the penalty that society imposes for a crime than terms of imprisonment. Indeed, some felons face substantial monetary penalties but little or no prison time.”
But in a scalding 93-page dissent, Judge Adalberto Jordan lambasted the state for its inability to properly screen felons’ voter applications. Florida officials have been unable to tell the 17 named plaintiffs in the case the amounts of their outstanding legal financial obligations, Jordan noted.
“So felons who want to satisfy the requirement are unable to do so, and will be prevented from voting in the 2020 elections and far beyond. Had Florida wanted to create a system to obstruct, impede, and impair the ability of felons to vote under Amendment 4, it could not have come up with a better one,” wrote Adalberto.
Voting-rights groups that challenged the 2019 law decried Friday’s ruling and indicated they would not drop the legal battle.
“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote. The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a prepared statement.
Florida lacks a single database that felons, attorneys, or state and local elections officials can consult to determine whether people have outstanding financial obligations. County officials are handling the process differently, according to court testimony.