Voting Rights

Federal Judge: Florida Can't Block Felons From Regaining Voting Rights For Inability to Pay Fines

The ruling is a partial victory for civil liberties groups, who argue that lawmakers were subverting a constitutional amendment expected to restore voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians.

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Florida can't bar residents with felony records from regaining their right to vote just because they're unable to pay off their court fines and fees, a federal judge ruled Friday night.

Last November, Florida voters approved Amendment 4 by 64 percent. The constitutional amendment was supposed to restore voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million Floridians with felony records, the largest single expansion of the franchise in recent history.

Complications emerged almost immediately. The language of Amendment 4 said that voting rights would be restored "upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation," but it did not say whether "all terms" included financial obligations imposed by courts.

So Florida Republicans introduced and passed a bill to require payment of fines and fees as a condition of regaining one's right to vote. Legislators said they were merely clarifying the language, but civil liberties groups assailed the law, calling it a poll tax. (When the language for the ballot measure was initially approved, a lawyer for the group submitting the amendment explicitly told the Florida Supreme Court that the terms would include payment of fines and fees.)

Tonight, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Florida Robert Hinkle partially granted a preliminary injunction sought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and several other advocacy groups seeking to block the law. Hinkle's ruling says Florida can make payment of court fines and fees a requirement for regaining voting rights, but not for those who are too poor to pay.

"When an eligible citizen misses an opportunity to vote, the opportunity is gone forever; the vote cannot later be cast," Hinkle wrote. "So when a state wrongly prevents an eligible citizen from voting, the harm to the citizen is irreparable. Each of these plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state's only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay."

Florida, Hinkle ruled, must ensure that there is prompt and clear process for determining whether a former offender has the ability to pay.

"The court's decision is clear: The right to vote cannot be denied to anyone based on their inability to pay," said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "The state must create a clear and unencumbered process that provides Florida's returning citizens the ability to vote. This is an important win for our democracy."

The Fines & Fees Justice Center has found that Florida courts, which are funded almost entirely through fines and fees, had "115 different types of fees and surcharges, the second highest number in the country." As a result, WLRN reports, Florida felony offenders will have to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars to restore their voting rights. "Across the state, over $1 billion in felony fines were issued between 2013 and 2018 alone, according to annual reports from the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association. Over that five year period, an average of only 19 percent of that money was paid back per year."

Prior to the passage of Amendment 4, Florida had maintained the toughest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country—a vestige of the state's 19th century "Black Codes," which attempted to systematically criminalize freed slaves following the Civil War, and then bar them from voting. It was one of four states that imposed lifetime bans on voting for people with felony records.

Friday's ruling is far from the end of litigation over Amendment 4. The Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the issue in three weeks, and Hinkle's injunction is only temporary. It will expire when the trial in the case begins next April.

The Florida Governor's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement to the Miami Herald, spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said the ruling "affirms the governor's consistent position that convicted felons should be held responsible for paying applicable restitution, fees and fines while also recognizing the need to provide an avenue for individuals unable to pay back their debts as a result of true financial hardship."

NEXT: Is the CFPB Unconstitutional? We'll Soon Find Out. (Corrected)

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  1. I’m a bit confused by the decision that they can deny your voting rights if you owe money they believe that you can pay, but can’t if you’re legitimately broke. As in, I can’t immediately discern what legal theory is in play here.

    It seems like your ability to pay the fines should be irrelevant to whether they can deny you rights. Hmmm. But I suppose that voting is technically not a constitutionally guaranteed right, at least in the sense that the states are allowed to set whatever conditions they want on it.

    1. It makes sense if that’s how they ruled. If you can pay the money then it isn’t an impediment so much as a choice you are making.

    2. And no states cannot “set whatever conditions”. Geez, don’t you know your history?

      1. But they can set a lot of conditions. For example, they could set literacy conditions, contrary to what many people believe. Of course, that would be struck down by leftist courts these days for political reasons.

        1. I think a literacy requirement would be struck down for constitutional reasons by people other than leftists. After a literacy test is considered o.k. what’s next? An IQ test? Many of the MAGA people would flunk.

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  4. Great ruling. So now the same principle will apply to the second amendment, and if you can’t afford all the fees and classes and background check fees required to exercise your second amendment rights, you get the unconstitutional permits for free, right?

    1. I think it means if you owe unpaid taxes they can garnish your wages or lien your property but not deprive you of your gun rights or voting rights. If a state were to erect a purely financial test for exercising gun rights I’m sure that would be impermissible but if the fees are rationally related to administrative costs then it’s different.

      1. I agree with Pod. I would also suggest that if you have the money for a gun you probably have the money for necessary permits. Voting does not cost you anything.

        1. You are required to spend the money even if the gun is inherited or gifted. The fees in question on voting are related to the administrative costs.

  5. What disturbing about the Florida law is that it is in direct violation of what the people voted for earlier. The people voted to return the vote to felons and the Florida Legislature the sought to go around the peoples will with these requirements.

    1. The lawyer for the group who backed the amendment said that it DID include fines.

      1. Yeah. That bothers me. On the matter of fines and fees I am of divided mind. On the one hand, I am generally in favor of restoring full civil rights, including franchise, to people who have completed all penalties connected with a conviction. On the other hand, if they lawyer for the original amendment explicitly said that it included fines and fees, the judge making this ruling is an activist twit. On the gripping hand, too many jurisdictions, unable to either curtail their spending habits OR face the wrath of voters whose taxes have risen, are turning to fees and fines to make up the gap (not that it;’s doing that). Furthermore, charging a person for the expense of convicting and imprisoning him just strikes me as freaking WRONG.

      2. Can you put a name on the lawyer? I know the author of the bill restricting restoration felt fines were included. I don’t know that the case for those putting the question on the ballot.

  6. Taking away the right to vote for prisoners seems like an almost useless penalty in terms of deterrence or punishment, but a very useful tool in disenfranchising people who tend to end up in prison. Of course extending this punishment beyond the sentence is flagrantly abusive.

    1. Taking the franchise from persona convicted of a certain level of criminal WHILE THEY ARE SERVING THEIR SENTENCES seems right to me. Providing that the justice system works reasonably well (and, yes, I know there are systemic problems) if we are justified in depriving a convict of Life and/or Liberty and severely curtailing his Pursuit of Happiness, then it seems that what we are saying is that WHILE HE IS BEING PUNISHED he is not a citizen.

      But the corollary to that is that once the punishment has ended, then he is a citizen again.

      Too my mind, a citizen should be allowed to vote, protest, own and carry arms, and so on. If we wish to punish someone by naming him permanently a non-citizen, we should have the guts to SAY SO when sentencing.

      1. Too my mind, a citizen should be allowed to vote, protest, own and carry arms, and so on

        That would be fine, as long as government actually stuck to its constitutionally delineated powers.

        These days, however, the ability to vote has morphed into the ability to take other people’s property for your own benefit.

    2. Voting is not a reward or an entitlement, it’s a means to selecting good government.

      In any case, under libertarian government, effectively, it’s mostly property owners who get to vote on anything significant anyway; you must hate that.

      1. So under “libertarian” government renters can’t vote?

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