Opening testimony in voting-rights trial includes evidence of racial disparity, administrative roadblocks

Photo by Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

The question of whether Latoya Moreland and hundreds of thousands of Floridians like her will be able to vote in this year’s presidential election is the crux of a federal trial that opened Monday in Tallahassee.

Moreland, a 39-year-old Bradenton mother with four children, was sentenced to two years on probation for drug possession in 2011. Her probation ended in 2013. But Moreland, who relies on disability income and family support, has not been able to pay off the $645 in court costs and fines related to her conviction.

Last July, Moreland received a letter from the local supervisor of elections informing her of the unpaid debt related to her felony conviction. The news left her so “discouraged and upset,” Moreland testified in a U.S. District Court trial Monday, that she ripped up the letter.

But before the March 17 presidential primary, Moreland checked the Manatee County elections website and saw she was listed as a registered voter. She went to the polls and informed the poll workers about her situation, including her unpaid court costs, and was “excited” to learn she was still eligible to vote, she testified.

Moreland said that was one of the reasons she had supported Amendment 4, a state constitutional amendment that was passed by 65 percent of  Florida voters in November 2018 and restored voting rights to felons who had served their time and completed their sentences.

Moreland testified that using her crime to prevent her from voting was just another barrier she faced as an African-American woman.

“If you make a bad choice, a bad decision, it’s held against you. It’s not like you can get a second chance. I felt like this [restoring her voting rights] would be my second chance, to make my voice heard, to make my daughters proud of me,” Moreland said.

But with the passage of a 2019 law, which requires the felons to have paid all their court costs, fines and other legal obligations before they get their voting rights restored, Moreland’s status as a voter remains in doubt.

In the federal class action, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee are defending the law, arguing that it complies with Amendment 4, which they say allows voting rights to be restored once a felon completes “all terms of sentence,” including the legal financial obligations.

‘This is not pocket change’

The law is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other civil rights groups that contend the law violates a number of federal constitutional provisions by creating a “wealth test” that makes the right to vote contingent on a felon’s ability to pay legal costs.

Testifying for the civil rights groups, Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, said that after surveying all 67 Florida counties he identified more than 1 million felons who had completed their sentences and met the criteria of Amendment 4, which excluded felons convicted of murder and sex crimes.

Of that group, Smith said, he found that more than 77 percent still owed court costs and other legal fees, with more than 60 percent of that group owing more than $1,000 in costs.

“This is not pocket change we’re talking about,” Smith said.

He said his research identified a “racial pattern” in the debt, with 82 percent of black felons owing legal costs versus 74 percent of the white felons. The data also showed that a majority of the felons who still owed legal costs were too poor to pay.

A key problem facing the felons as well as state election officials is that there is no reliable database that includes the outstanding legal financial obligations, Smith said.

It would be an enormous task for state elections officials to wade through perhaps 1 million or more new voters registering for this year’s presidential election to determine eligibility, he said. And he sharply criticized a new state registration form that he said presented confusing questions to potential voters.

“I have grave concerns about individuals not being able to register to vote who should be able to register to vote,” Smith testified. “I have grave concerns about individuals not being able to identify for themselves how much they owe. And I don’t see either the [registration] form or the process being at all feasible in an election year, much less any year.”

In his opening argument, Mohammad Jazil, a private attorney representing the governor and secretary of state, said the government’s case will show that the 2019 law follows the language in Amendment 4.

“The all terms of sentence language is clear. That language is unambiguous. That language includes the payment of fines, fees, costs, restitution, and all other financial terms of the sentence before the restoration of voting rights,” Jazil said.

Jazil announced that the state will call on Desmond Meade as a witness. Meade, a felon who led the Amendment 4 drive, supported the 2019 law, Jazil said.

He also noted the law contains provisions whereby the legal costs can be waived, including through performance of community service in lieu of paying the fees.

During their opening arguments, lawyers for the civil rights groups said they will make the case that the law is unconstitutional and discriminates against poor people and minorities.

“For us this case is really about the state of Florida’s relentless effort, this time through [the law], to chip away at its own citizens’ ability to participate on an equal basis in our democracy, by making voting rights selectively available to only the most privileged among us,” said Nancy Abudu, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle is presiding over the case.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the trial is being held remotely, using Internet technology. The public and press have access to the proceedings through a teleconferencing process.