In federal hearing, judge appears skeptical of Florida’s new felon-voting restoration system

ACLU attorney Orion Danjuma spoke with reporters after the hearing .

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle hasn’t clearly signaled how he will rule on a challenge to the Florida Legislature’s law implementing the state’s felon voting restoration law, but he’s made one thing crystal clear: The system is a “mess.”

At stake as a two-day hearing wound down Tuesday morning was whether hundreds of thousands of people in Florida will be allowed to vote in next year’s presidential election.

A group of civil-rights groups are suing the state following the passage of legislation (SB 7066), which went into effect in July, implementing Amendment 4. That’s the constitutional amendment passed by more than 64 percent of Floridians last fall that said ex-felons who completed their sentences can win restoration of their right to vote.

This week’s hearing involved a request for an injunction barring enforcement of the law pending a full trial on its merits.

The amendment doesn’t apply to people convicted of murder or sexual offenses. It went into effect in January, and citizens who believed that they had completed their sentence immediately began registering to vote.

But the rules changed in July, after the Republican-led Legislature defined completion of a sentence as requiring that felons had to have paid any fines, fees and, restitution – dramatically reducing the eligibility of the estimated 1.4 million felons who have otherwise completed their sentences. GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law.

Testimony in the federal courthouse in Tallahassee spotlighted considerable confusion facing any ex-felon who wants to register to vote. There is still no central repository of data to indicate whether they still owe money. And a confusing new voter registration form forces voters to “risk prosecution” and is “impossible to navigate,” said attorney Danielle Lang, an attorney with the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, one of the organizations challenging the law.

Judge Hinkle told attorneys representing the state that the form “adds to the fear” of an ex-felon who believes he or she has fulfilled any financial obligations, but isn’t quite certain, since submission of false voter registration information is a third-degree felony under Florida law.

Representing the state, attorney Mohammed Jazil acknowledged the form was “inartfully worded.” The implementing law provides for a Restoration of Voting Rights Group to review the voter registration process; its report is expected next month, Jazil said.

Lang, the plaintiffs’ attorney, argued it was “quite unusual” to pass a law first and then set up a group to decide how to create the rules.

Critics of the implementing bill have called it an unconstitutional poll tax. Attorneys for the state insist there are other avenues for voters who can’t afford to pay their outstanding conviction-related debts, including the possibility of converting them to community service and seeking for clemency from the governor and Cabinet.

But those alternatives aren’t very realistic, Hinkle said. For example, ex-offenders must wait five years before they can apply for clemency under rules adopted under former Gov. Rick Scott. Furthermore, the Florida Commission on Offender Review reported a backlog of 10,688 applications as of Oct. 1.

Agriculture Commission Nikki Fried has suggested reforming that system.

“As the judge noted in his own comments, if you were going to design a system that deterred individuals who are returning citizens with felony convictions from being able to register to vote, this is the type of system that you would design,” said Orion Danjuma, a staff attorney for the ACLU, also involved in the litigation.

Speaking for the state, attorney Jazil said Amendment 4 imposes only two conditions: Applicants must have completed all terms of their sentences and can’t have been found guilty of murder or a sexual offense.

“All terms of a sentence” – the predicate for restoration – means fines, fees and restitution, Jazil maintained. “Paying your debt to society is paying your debt to society.”

Hinkle distinguished between fines and restitution and “fees,” which he defined as equivalent of poll taxes barred under the 24th Amendment.

“SB 7066 is requiring you to pay general taxes that support the court system. That’s barred by the plain language of the 24th Amendment, which says that there should be no poll taxes or any other types of taxes that will restrict the right to vote,” Danjuma said while speaking to reporters after the hearing had concluded. “The problem with this law is that it imposes exactly those types of taxes that are barred by the Constitution.”

Earlier, University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith testified about his research findings that of the more than 500,000 felons who ostensibly became eligible to vote under Amendment 4, more than 80 percent owe some financial obligation.

Hinkle said he hoped to rule soon and expects the losing party to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

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