In light of a recent federal appeals court decision, Florida is requiring ex-felons to pay all fines, restitution and legal fees before they can regain the right to vote.
The Sept. 11 order from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower decision that granted Florida felons the right to vote regardless of outstanding legal fees. Under Amendment 4, a Florida state amendment passed in 2018, felons who have completed their sentences would have their voting rights automatically restored, with the exception of those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. Before the amendment, those convicted of a felony had to apply for voting rights restoration after a waiting period.
Legal debate began when lawmakers defined what it means to complete a prison sentence. In July 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that defined “completion of sentence” to include the full payment of any ordered fines after being released from imprisonment and finishing probation.
Voting rights advocates called the decision an affirmation of a “pay-to-vote system” that disenfranchises minorities and poor people, according to the Associated Press. As of March, there are approximately 774,000 felons in Florida who have completed prison sentences and would otherwise be eligible but have not paid fines and other legal obligations, according to AP. Florida’s population was approximately 21,477,737 in July 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, to AP. “The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy.”
This decision will have an effect on the presidential election. Florida’s voter registration deadline is Oct. 5, and early voting begins Oct. 19. Historically, Florida has been a Republican state and is considered a must-win state for President Donald Trump’s reelection. Democrats had hopes of gaining support from thousands of former felons in Florida, according to AP.
Eleven states, including Florida, have rulings in which felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored, face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence or require additional action, like paying fees, before voting rights can be restored, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The four judges who issued a dissenting opinion argued that it is difficult for returning felons to know what outstanding financial obligations they may have and that the state should implement mechanisms to provide that information, according to the AP.
“In light of the chaos created by the majority’s holding that (financial obligations) must be satisfied according to the ‘every-dollar’ method, countless scores of individuals will be uncertain of their eligibility to vote,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin.
Chief Judge William Pryor wrote that it is not the state’s responsibility to create a system to let felons know what they owe.
“States are constitutionally entitled to set legitimate voter qualifications through laws of general application and to require voters to comply with those laws through their own efforts,” Pryor wrote in the majority opinion. “So long as a state provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility — as Florida does — due process requires nothing more.”