Trial opened Monday in federal court in Tallahassee in a lawsuit challenging the Florida Legislature’s decision to restrict restoration of voting rights under Amendment 4 only to felons who have paid any outstanding costs, fines, fees, or restitution.
A coalition of civil- and voting-rights groups argued that the implementing bill the Legislature approved and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law earlier this year is unconstitutional and will leave most felons disenfranchised. This, they contend, violates the mandate of the more than 5 million voters who approved Amendment 4 in November.
Attorneys representing DeSantis and Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee countered that the plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund,were trying to make the case about criminal justice reform. “This is not the place for it,” attorney Nick Primrose said.
Attorneys for the state insisted Amendment 4 requires that former felons must complete “all terms” of their criminal sentences – and not “some terms.” They also contended that, under the implementing bill, there is no “irrevocable injury or harm” to citizens who can’t vote because they still owe a financial obligation.
U.S. Federal District Judge Robert Hinkle flatly rejected that contention later in the proceedings, saying, “it’s a no brainer” that ex-felons deprived the franchise would suffer harm.
Taking the stand for the plaintiffs on Monday was University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith. Citing information from the Florida Department of Corrections and clerks of the court in 48 counties, Smith concluded in a report published earlier this year that 542,207 people who had been charged with felony convictions have completed their sentences.
Of that population, over 436,000, or more than 80 percent, owe some outstanding financial obligation ranging between $500 and $5,000, Smith testified.
Those numbers do not include people convicted for murder or sexual felonies; Amendment 4 did not automatically restore their voting rights.
Another witness was Hillsborough County resident Lee Hoffman, 60, who first committed a felony when he was 18 and has never voted in an election in Florida. He said he followed the campaign for Amendment 4 last year and was excited about the chance to vote. Court officials subsequently informed him that he owes $449, he said, which he can’t afford to pay before Florida’s presidential primary election in March.
“I was elated to be able to vote, and then to have it struck down like that? That really upset me,“ Hoffman told the Florida Phoenix outside the courtroom. “This isn’t what people wanted. And then this happens.”
Attorneys for the state said that, under the implementing legislation, ex-felons can request a waiver from the judge who sentenced them or convert their fines into community service.
During a rally that took place near the federal court building at lunchtime, Amendment 4 activists denounced the implementing bill.
“This law restricts the right to vote far beyond what any reasonable voter intended when they voted yes for Amendment 4 in November of 2018,” said Melba Pearson, deputy director for the ACLU of Florida. “This Legislature had every single opportunity over the past 150 years to reform Florida’s shameful lifetime of disenfranchisement, and they failed to do so.”
Before Amendment 4, Florida was an outlier when it came to restoring voting rights for those convicted of felony offenses as one of only four states in which convicted felons did not automatically regain their right to vote after serving time. They could win restoration only by going before the state’s Executive Clemency Board, comprising the governor and the three independently elected state Cabinet members.
The trial will resume with closing statements on Tuesday morning.