More confusion, waiting, for felons seeking right to vote

early voting booth

Attorneys representing opposing sides in a federal lawsuit about felon voting rights have agreed to hold a hearing in October, but the judge is not ready to set a date for the trial which could affect hundreds of thousands of voters.

And the judge raised critical questions this week about what might happen to felons who are seeking the right to vote if the state’s new law is ruled unconstitutional.

In a 45-minute conference call on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle scheduled an Oct. 7 preliminary hearing to hear a request by a host of civil rights groups to throw out the law regarding which felons are allowed to vote.

More than 64 percent of Floridians voted last November to approve Amendment 4. The amendment called for the automatic restoration of voting rights for all felons who have completed their sentences, except for people convicted of murder or sex crimes. The measure went into effect on January 8 and people with felony convictions immediately began legally registering to vote.

But on July 1, a new law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature went into effect. It prevents felons who still owe court-ordered financial obligations like fines, fees or restitution from voting.

That compelled a host of civil rights groups to immediately file a lawsuit, claiming that the law is unconstitutional because it conditions voting on whether a person can pay financial penalties.

Earlier this month, Gov. DeSantis and Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed. DeSantis followed up by asking for an advisory opinion from the Florida Supreme Court about whether “completion of all terms of sentence” under the Florida Constitution includes the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations.

A recent partial analysis by University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith found that fewer than 20 percent of felons would be eligible to vote under the new state law – the other 80 percent would be prevented from voting because they still owe fines, fees or restitution.

Judge Hinkle asked critical questions about what happens if he finds that the law requiring felons to satisfy their financial obligations is unconstitutional.

“Does that mean that the financial obligations requirement should essentially be severed from Amendment 4, at least as it’s applied to that 80 percent?” he asked, referring to the UF professor’s analysis, “Or does it mean that Amendment 4 is unconstitutional, and we’re back where we were before it was passed? Now, nobody’s quite raised that, but it seems to me to be a question that at some point has got to be addressed.”

Hinkle also addressed a problem that many say is complicating the effort to give voting rights to felons – the fact that there’s no easily available central database for records on what fines, fees, or restoration a felon has paid. Hinkle said that he’d like someone who is well versed in how felony conviction records in Florida are stored to testify at the hearing in October.

“It might be helpful to have a good description of what is and what is not available and how one is able to determine who is eligible to vote and who isn’t,” he said.

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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