October 21, 2019 – From HuffPost.com
Florida election officials can’t block a group of nearly 20 people with felony convictions from registering to vote if they can’t afford to repay their financial obligations, a federal judge in Florida ruled on Friday.
The ruling, a preliminary injunction, is a victory for voting rights groups that sued the state over a new law that required people with felony convictions to repay financial obligations before they could vote again.
“The court held that the right to vote cannot be denied based on a person’s inability to pay fines and fees. This ruling recognizes the gravity of elected officials trying to circumvent Amendment 4 and create voting roadblocks based on wealth,” said Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who represented some of the plaintiffs.
The law came after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in November 2018 to repeal the state’s lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions. Critics said the Florida law, passed in May, was an effort to undermine that change and effectively imposed a poll tax on people who couldn’t pay.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in his ruling that neither the Florida secretary of state nor local election officials could block the plaintiffs in the case from registering to vote “based only on failure to pay a financial obligation that the plaintiff asserts the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay.”
“An otherwise-qualified felon who establishes genuine inability to pay—either
through another process the State makes available or in connection with a
challenge—cannot be prevented from casting a ballot and having it counted,” Hinkle wrote.
Advocacy groups estimated that up to 1.4 million people could be affected by the constitutional amendment to repeal Florida’s lifetime voting ban. An expert for the plaintiffs in the case estimated that 80% of people with felony convictions still owe some kind of financial obligation. The state law requiring repayment, therefore, undercut the effect of the amendment, the plaintiffs said.
The Friday ruling was limited specifically to the 17 plaintiffs in the case. Hinkle also said that generally, a state could condition the restoration of voting rights on repaying financial obligations. It could not, however, block people from voting if they genuinely demonstrated they couldn’t pay.
“When an eligible citizen misses an opportunity to vote, the opportunity is gone forever; the vote cannot later be cast,” he wrote. “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.”
Hinkle also declined to weigh in on whether the Florida law violated the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says people can’t be blocked from voting with a “poll tax or any other tax.”