Judge says he will consider whether Florida’s felon voting law discriminates on race

Voting booths in Leon County
Voting booths in Leon County, in Florida's state capital. Credit: Mitch Perry.

As a major voting-rights case heads to its finale, a federal trial judge warned the state on Tuesday that he would look at whether a 2019 Florida law that added financial barriers for former felons seeking to vote violated racial discrimination standards.

The law, enacted by the 2019 Legislature, required former felons, once they leave prison or probation, to pay all costs, fines, and restitution to complete their sentences before they can register to vote. The law was the Republican-led Legislature’s effort to implement Amendment 4, which was passed by voters in 2018 and sought to restore voting rights for former felons, except those with murder and sex-crime convictions.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who has presided over the seven-day trial, said he wanted lawyers for the state to address the racial issue in their closing arguments set for Wednesday. He specifically noted that one of the guides to his decision would be a 2016 federal appellate court ruling that overturned a 2013 North Carolina voting law that the court found discriminated against African-American voters.

The 2019 law passed the Florida Legislature on a partisan basis, with GOP members in favor of the measure (SB 7066) and Democrats in opposition.

“If all the Republicans voted for this because they thought giving the vote to more felons would help Democrats and the only reason they thought that is because a disproportionate share of prisoners or felons are African-American, why doesn’t that establish the racial discrimination case?” Hinkle asked.

He said he wanted lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who are defending the law, to address the argument that “the Legislature voted one way because of the perceived partisan impact, and the only reason they perceived the partisan impact was race.”

On a related issue, Hinkle noted the civil rights groups challenging the 2019 law as unconstitutional questioned the credibility of Michael Barber, a Brigham Young University political scientist who testified for the state that race did not play a factor in passage of the law.

Lawyers for the ACLU, NAACP, and other groups noted that Barber’s testimony in two other federal trials had been ruled “not credible” by the trial judges.

Hinkle said those findings were irrelevant to his deliberations, but he questioned why Barber testified in the Florida trial that the civil rights groups approached one of his associates, before the trial, about helping their case.

Hinkle said there was no need for Barber to make that public disclosure. “That does seem to me it might go to credibility … . I kind of wonder about that,” the judge said.

Turning to the civil rights groups, Hinkle said they need to explain why, if the 2019 law is unconstitutional because of its impact on voting rights, isn’t Amendment 4 also invalid. The state has argued that Senate Bill 7066 implemented the provisions of the amendment, which passed with nearly 65 percent of the vote.

“One of the questions I’ll be asking is, is that right?” Hinkle said. “Are you saying, don’t touch Amendment 4 or its application to us, we’re only challenging the application of (SB) 7066? I’ll need you to answer that question.”

During the trial, the state played video testimony from Desmond Meade, a former prisoner whose Florida Rights Restoration Coalition led the successful Amendment 4 drive.

Meade, who testified that he did not see any racial motivation in the lawmakers who crafted the 2019 law, said he supported the measure, although it was not “ideal.”

But Meade’s group, which took a “neutral” stance in the lawsuit, made it clear that any legal decision should not implicate Amendment 4 itself.

“[U]nder no circumstances should the court strike down Amendment 4 and restore the lifetime ban that predated the amendment’s approval by a supermajority of Florida voters,” the organization said in written statement issued when the coalition filed a brief in the case last fall.