A federal trial starts today on a FL law that opponents say unconstitutionally restricts voting rights for ex-felons

Second Chances ad
Floridians for a Fair Democracy and the Second Chances campaign spent nearly $5 million on ads to support Florida Constitutional Amendment 4 ahead of the Nov. 6 election. Credit: Second Chances ad screenshot.

A federal judge will hear arguments today in a challenge by civil rights groups to a 2019 Florida law that requires felons who have served their prison time to pay all their fines and court costs before they have their voting rights restored.

The case is being closely watched because supporters of Amendment 4 say the full implementation of that measure could lead to restoration of voting rights for hundreds of thousands of former felons, which could be a factor in the November presidential election.

But if the law stands, it could present a significant barrier to many of those felons seeking the right to vote.

The class action stems from the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018, when 65 percent of Florida voters endorsed the state constitutional amendment that called for the restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences.

Previously, ex-felons were not allowed to vote unless they had the right restored through a cumbersome clemency process that resulted in few successful cases in recent years.

The Florida Legislature, over objections of the amendment supporters, passed a law during the 2019 session that made the voting rights restoration contingent on the former felons paying all of their outstanding “legal financial obligations.”

Here is a Florida Phoenix report on that legislation.

The law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Campaign Legal Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which argued the measure “conditions [the former prisoners’] right to vote on their wealth and penalizes returning citizens who are unable to pay” in violation of the U.S. Constitution, including the 24th Amendment, which prohibits poll taxes.

“The law will have a massive disenfranchising effect, and result in sustained, and likely permanent, disenfranchisement for individuals without means,” the opponents said in a legal filing last fall. “It creates two classes of returning citizens: those who are wealthy enough to vote and those who cannot afford to.”

They added: “This disenfranchisement will be borne disproportionately by low-income individuals and racial minorities, due to longstanding and well-documented racial gaps in poverty and employment.”

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee have vigorously defended the law, arguing that it created a voting restoration process in compliance with Amendment 4, which stated that the right would be restored on “completion of all terms of sentence.”

“Because the Legislature had no authority to change the requirement that ‘all legal financial obligations’ must be ‘completed’ before a felon has his voting rights restored, it had no meaningful way to address the purported disparate impact — it could not pass a law defining ‘complete’ as something less than ‘complete’ without contradicting Amendment 4’s language,” the state said in a March legal filing.

The state also noted that the law did not require all former felons to pay all of their legal costs, providing a method whereby they could meet their financial obligations by performing community service.

Thus far, the opponents of the law have won a series of legal rulings.

In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle approved a preliminary injunction against the law, ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” court-ordered fees, fines, and restitution.

“The state of Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution,” Hinkle wrote. “And because, for this purpose, there is no reason to treat restitution differently from other financial obligations included in a sentence, Florida also cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources to pay the other financial obligations.”

Hinkle said the state needed to establish a process whereby felons could vote if they could show they are unable to pay their outstanding financial obligations.

In February, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld Hinkle’s temporary injunction.

Now, the case returns to Hinkle’s Tallahassee courtroom, where ultimately he will decide the constitutionality of the 2019 law.

As part of the case, Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, provided a report for the civil rights groups that found that eight out of every 10 felons who had completed their prison sentences still faced financial obligations.

His survey covered 58 of Florida’s 67 counties, finding 436,000 felons who still owed fines, restitution and other court costs out of 542,207 felons.

But his estimate was called conservative because it did not include data from some of Florida’s larger counties or felons with federal convictions or felons who moved to Florida from other states.

Another report cited in the case came from the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, showing that 22 percent of fines and fees assessed in the state were at risk of non-collection because of indigency.