Voting Rights

Appeals Court Upholds Florida Law Requiring Felony Offenders To Pay Off Fines Before Regaining Voting Rights

The ruling is a major setback for civil liberties groups trying to re-enfranchise an estimated 775,000 Floridians with felony records.

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A federal appeals court today upheld a Florida law requiring felony offenders to pay off their court fines and fees before they can regain the right to vote. The decision is a setback for civil liberties groups' attempts to re-enfranchise an estimated 775,000 residents in the battleground state.

In a 6–4 ruling, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the law, passed by Florida Republicans last year, does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment or the 24th Amendment's prohibition on poll taxes. This overturned a U.S. district judge's ruling in May, which held that the state's inscrutable system for determining voting eligibility discriminated against offenders who were too poor to pay off their fines.

"Florida withholds the franchise from any felon, regardless of wealth, who has failed to complete any term of his criminal sentence—financial or otherwise," Judge William Pryor wrote in today's ruling.

The case is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court. But it all but ensures that most of those in Florida with felony records won't be able to register to vote in time for this November's election. As WLRN reported last year, Florida felons would have to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars to restore their voting rights.

The ruling will not immediately affect the status of some 85,000 residents with felony records who have already registered to vote.

Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said in a press release that the ruling "runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote" and called it "an affront to the spirit of democracy."

The fight over felon voting rights in Florida began in 2018, immediately after Florida voters decisively passed Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to those with felony records. Florida was one of a small group of states that enforced a lifetime voting ban for anyone with a felony record, and Amendment 4 was hailed as one of the largest single expansions of the franchise in recent history.

The amendment's language 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. 

Florida Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, argued that it did, and they passed a bill making voting eligibility contingent on first paying off court fines and fees. Civil rights groups say that amounts to a poll tax, and several of them filed lawsuits last year challenging the new law at both the state and federal levels.

At trial this April, state officials repeatedly admitted they couldn't easily track how much someone owed in criminal fines and fees; the documents were often scattered across multiple county agencies.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in May that the Florida government could condition voting on paying off court fines and fees, but that blocking offenders who are too poor to pay their fines is discriminatory. Hinkle had previously ordered the state to create a clear process to identify whether former felony offenders are eligible to vote, exactly how much money they owed, and if they were indigent.

The 11th Circuit's opinion today vacated Hinkle's orders, finding that the Due Process Clause created no obligation for the Florida government to provide felony offenders with records to determine how much they owe.

"So long as a State provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility—as Florida does—due process requires nothing more," Pryor wrote.

"This is a deeply disappointing decision," Paul Smith, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, one of the other groups that challenged the law, said in a press release. "While the full rights restoration envisioned by Amendment 4 has become less likely to be realized this fall, we will continue this fight for all Florida voters, so the full benefits of Amendment 4 will someday be realized."

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  3. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in May that the Florida government could condition voting on paying off court fines and fees, but that blocking offenders who are too poor to pay their fines is discriminatory.

    As well as systematically racist and socially unjust. How could Hinkle forget those?

    1. Chicago Mayor Beetlejuice decreed the Public Library will no longer fine you for overdue books. Apparently returning books on time is a sign of white supremacy.

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  5. I see no reason to prevent any prisoners from voting. But “all terms” seems about as clear as can be, especially for a law.

    1. It is no more clear than “shall not be infringed”.

      1. Voting is conditional in the US. In several states, if you are convicted of a serious felony, you can never vote.

        The original Constitution limited voting to property owners, which is probably the most libertarian form of democracy.

        The idea that you get to impose your will on others via voting simply because you exist is about as far removed from libertarianism and a free society as it can be.

        1. >The idea that you get to impose your will on others via voting simply because you exist is about as far removed from libertarianism and a free society as it can be.

          The idea that you get to impose your will on others simply because you own more property, does not strike me as particularly libertarian either.

    2. Not only is it clear, this is how the initiative was being described to the public by its advocates before the election.

      They’re trying to get the court to order it implemented contrary to their own explanations of it before it passed!

  6. As a left-libertarian, I want felons to vote even while they’re behind bars.

    #FelonsAreNaturalLibertarians

  7. That’s a bunch of bullshit. Any actual libertarian wouldn’t think they’d give up their right to vote even in prison anyhow.

    1. What about their right to keep and bear arms?

      Idiot.

    2. Any actual libertarian wouldn’t think they’d give up their right to vote even in prison anyhow.

      Any actual libertarian would question the legitimacy of the kind of voting we have in the first place. That is, voting that results in the taking of private property and violence against others.

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  9. “The ruling is a major setback for civil liberties groups trying to re-enfranchise an estimated 775,000 Floridians with felony records.”

    Of course, there are questions about whether the law is constitutional, whether it reflects the will of the people of Florida, and other questions, too–not just whether it’s a setback for “civil liberties groups”.

    P.S. I’ve seen “civil liberties groups” burn down the businesses of innocent bystanders lately.

  10. Aw damn now democrats can’t expand the rolls of possible voters.

    Shucks.

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  12. Now, I certainly wouldn’t suggest that felons tend to be Democratic, I will simply suggest that felons *who get caught* tend to be Democrats. therefore, enfranchising felons who got caught will benefit the Democratic Party – not that this in any way affects anyone’s calculations.

    1. Should liberty be conditional on one’s assumed voting habits?

      1. I don’t know, ask the activists who are so eager to have felons vote.

      2. Its always worth pointing out that Democrats motives are incredibly self serving, because the only values they ever consistently claim are that they champion the underprivileged. Turns out the “underprivileged” is always them.

      3. Sure: if you vote early and often, you should be banned for life from voting.

        Ditto if you have a felony conviction.

  13. I just don’t understand this argument at all. They have this law restoring voting rights to felons so it would seem that denying voting rights to felons is Constitutional. Predicating the restoration of voting rights on meeting all conditions of their release would certainly be Constitutional as well. Arguing that people who haven’t met all the conditions of their release should be treated just the same as people who have is just silly. And adding in this class warfare bullshit about how it’s not fair that rich people can pay their fines and poor people can’t is just that – it’s class warfare bullshit. Hell yeah, rich people have more money and can afford to buy more shit than poor people can, it’s the very definition of rich. Saying that it’s “not fair” that rich people can buy more shit than poor people is just bizarre.

    So all this comes down to is whether or not people who haven’t paid their fines have met all the conditions of their release and I’d have to say it’s pretty goddamn clear they haven’t.

    1. The argument is essentially whether the “fees and fines” that the ex-felons have to pay constitutes a stealth poll tax in the context of this law.

      Yes there is a good faith argument to be made that the “fees and fines” are part of the ex-criminal’s sentence and should be completed before voting rights are restored.

      But I frankly don’t trust the state to not abuse this power to ramp up the “fees and fines” in order to manipulate who gets to vote and who doesn’t, just like the original poll taxes. The state already uses the law as a revenue-raising mechanism, why not use the law to manipulate the vote?

      IMO general skepticism of state power ought to lend one to not trust the state’s rationale in this case.

      1. The argument is essentially whether the “fees and fines” that the ex-felons have to pay constitutes a stealth poll tax in the context of this law.

        We can remove that concern easily by preventing ex felons from voting for life, as is still the case in some states. It’s also arguably the right thing to do.

        IMO general skepticism of state power ought to lend one to not trust the state’s rationale in this case.

        In our current system, voting itself is the imposition of state power onto others, so that argument rings hollow. It certainly isn’t a libertarian argument.

      2. I agree with you in this case

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  15. Only in America would you have politicians seeking to prevent legal citizens from voting if they owe a sin tax to the government while at the same time trying to ensure voting rights for illegals and if you say anything about this your an is-ist of one kind or another.

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  17. If it can be taken away it’s not a right.

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  20. It seems odd for libertarians to worry about “voting rights for ex-felons”.

    For libertarians, your decisions are limited to your private property; to the degree that there is collective decision making, it is as part of voluntary private associations among property owners (e.g. HOAs).

    If you violate the rules of a private association and are expelled from it, you lose your voting rights. And while you might be able to regain them under some circumstances, you certainly have no right or expectation to do so.

    The idea that you have rights to meddle in the affairs of others simply by existing (“voting rights”) is a decidedly non-libertarian concept.

    1. sounds like you’re confusing theory and practice.
      you may have noticed that we don’t live in a libertarian polity right now.

    2. Sure, for a “private association”. Of which the public body politic is not.

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  22. Felons should get all their rights back at the same time. Voting, gun ownership, serve on a jury, get a passport, etc.

    If you don’t trust him to own a gun responsibly, I don’t trust him to vote responsibly.

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  25. Seems like a poll tax, straight up.

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  27. I was struck by the fact that the State of Florida does not seem to know how much an actual individual owes in fines. I would think it is incumbent of the State to know this if it wants to restrict voting rights. I can think of a case where an individual believes they have satisfied the requirement, registers, and votes, only to have the State come back and say they voted illegally. If the State has the resources to determine an individual voted illegally because some fines were in arears then they should be able to tell the individual at the time they try to register.

    1. That’s why I say they have a losing case on how to properly interpret Proposal 4, but what looks like a strong case for a due process violation on the part of the state which might be remedied by the financial requirement being waived.

      But only on a case by case basis, I expect.

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