Senators ask Gov. DeSantis to accept judge’s ruling covering return of felons’ voting rights

Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.

Two Democratic state senators have urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to give up his defense of a state law pinning former felon’s voting rights under Amendment 4 on their ability to pay “legal financial obligations” even if they don’t have enough money.

“This is the type of system we would expect to read about in the darkest chapters of our nation’s history, not in our morning newspapers,” Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa and Sen. Lori Berman of Palm Beach County wrote in a letter to DeSantis dated Thursday.

“Florida should join the rest of the country in expanding the right to vote, not perpetuating further disenfranchisement of non-violent felons,” they argued.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee ruled Sunday that the law violates the U.S. Constitution on a number of points, including the 25th Amendment’s proscription against conditioning the vote upon payment of “poll and other taxes.”

The Republican governor, who pressed the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature to enact the law, has vowed to appeal Hinkle’s ruling to the 11th Circuit.

A supermajority of the state’s voters approved Amendment 4 in 2016 to restore voting rights to felons, except those convicted of murder and sex crimes, upon fulfillment of “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The Legislature interpreted that to include fines, court fees, and court-ordered restitution.

“But one cannot get blood from a turnip or money from a person unable to pay. And the state has far better ways to collect amounts it is owed. Moreover, one might well question the legitimacy of the state’s interest in leveraging its control over eligibility to vote to improve the state’s financial position,” Hinkle wrote.

The judge had earlier issued a preliminary injunction against the state pending a trial on the merits. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit refused on Feb. 19 to overrule Hinkle, and the full court on March 31 let that decision stand.

“The state has now argued this case three times in court, each time spending thousands in taxpayer dollars on court costs — this, at a time when our state’s budget is in freefall from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote.

Correction: A earlier version of this story misidentified one of the letter’s signatories.