Former Felons in Florida Can’t Be Barred from Voting for Inability to Pay Fines

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Source: Tom Arthur, “Señalización de Lugar de Votación en California. 2008,” wikimedia.org, Oct. 23, 2008

US District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled on Sunday, May 24, 2020 that parts of the Florida law requiring former felons to pay court fees, fines, and restitution to victims before they can vote are unconstitutional for those unable to pay.

Hinkle ruled that the following former felons should have their right to vote restored: those who were appointed a public defender, those whose fines, fees, and restitution were converted to civil liens (in which property such as a house is put up as collateral for payment), and those who only owe court fees.

In the ruling, Hinkle wrote, “The State of Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money. Most of the citizens lack the financial resources to make the required payment. Many do not know, and some will not be able to find out, how much they must pay. For most, the required payment will consist only of charges the State imposed to fund government operations—taxes in substance though not in name… This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay.”

Throughout the case, the state admitted it has no way of tracking how much each former felon owes, leaving the former felons in limbo in terms of reenfranchisement.

Nearly 65% of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to reenfranchise some former felons who have completed “all terms” of their sentences, including probation and parole.

The phrase “all terms” was not defined by the amendment and Republican lawmakers later determined that “all terms” included court fees, fines, and restitution, and put a law into effect in 2019 that clarified the phrase as such. The law has been debated in courts since.

The current court case, Kelvin Leon Jones, et al., v. Ron DeSantis et al., began with 17 plaintiffs, but became a class action lawsuit in Apr. 2020, which means the ruling potentially applies to more than 430,000 former felons.

The ruling could be even more widespread, with impacts on the laws in other states. Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas and Utah filed an amicus brief with the court in Mar. 2020, arguing that states should be allowed to require payment of fines, fees, and restitution before reenfranchisement. The brief stated, “If states are limited in their ability to pursue re-enfranchisement alongside their other interests, some states may well throw in the towel and prohibit any felon from regaining the right to vote.”

How the ruling could impact the 2020 election is yet to be seen. Florida is expected to appeal the ruling to the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Attorneys on both sides expect the case to end up before the Supreme Court.

Under current law, former felons may lose their right to vote permanently in 9 states. They may have the vote restored after completion of prison, parole, and probation in 19 states; after prison and parole in 2 states; and after prison in 18 states and DC. In Vermont and Maine, prisoners may vote while serving their sentences.

Discussion Questions – Things to Think About
1. Should former felons be allowed to vote? Explain your answer.

2. Should former felons have to pay fines, fees, and/or restitution first? Why or why not? 

3. Do you think allowing former felons to vote helps one political party over another? Should that be taken into consideration when reenfranchising former felons? Explain your answers.

Sources:

Jason Breslow, “Federal Judge Rules Florida Law Restricting Voting Rights for Felons Unconstitutional,” npr.org, May 24, 2020

Gary Fineout, “Federal Judge Strikes down Restrictions on Florida Felon Voting,” politico.com, May 24, 2020

Amy Gardner, “Federal Judge Guts Florida Law Requiring Felons to Pay Fines before They Can Vote,” washingtonpost.com, May 24, 2020

Kelvin Leon Jones, et al., v. Ron DeSantis et al., politico.com, May 24, 2020

Dara Kim, “States Back DeSantis in Felons’ Voting Fight,” news4jax.com, Mar. 5, 2020

Paul LeBlanc, “Federal Judge Rules Florida Felons Can’t Be Barred from Voting Because They Owe Court Fines,” cnn.com, May 24, 2020

Patricia Mazzei, “Florida Law Restricting Felon Voting Is Unconstitutional, Judge Rules,” nytimes.com, May 24, 2020

CBS Miami, “Several States, Conservative Groups Back Gov. DeSantis in Florida Felons’ Voting Fight,” miami.cbslocal.com, Mar. 5, 2020

Lawrence Mower, “Federal Judge Rules Florida Ex-Felons Can’t Be Denied the Right to Vote,” miamiherald.com, May 24, 2020

Lawrence Mower, “‘A Game Changer’: Five Takeaways from Sunday’s Ruling on Felon Voting,” tampabay.com, May 25, 2020

Daniel Rivero, “Voting Rights for Hundreds of Thousands of Felons at Stake in Florida Trial,” npr.org, Apr. 27, 2020