A federal judge ruled Sunday that hundreds of thousands of ex-felons in Florida can’t be forced to pay back fines and fees owed to the state before they cast a ballot, saying a Republican-backed law passed last year effectively created a “pay-to-vote system.”
Florida overwhelming passed a measure in 2018 that restored the voting rights to nearly every felon who had completed “all terms” of their sentences, a victory hailed by voting rights advocates at the time. But in 2019, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill that said the “all terms” provision was only met if all court-issued fees, fines and restitution had also been paid.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle ruled Sunday that provision was unconstitutional.
“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,” the judge wrote. “Most citizens lack the financial resources to make the required payment … This pay-to-vote system would be universally decried as unconstitutional but for one thing: each citizen at issue was convicted, at some point in the past, of a felony offense.”
“The state may disenfranchise felons and impose conditions on their re-enfranchisement,” Hinkle later wrote. “But the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny. Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed system, this one falls short in substantial respects.”
The order requires the state to inform all felons if they are eligible to vote and how much they owe in fees. Any felon will be legally allowed to register to vote if they are not given an answer in 21 days.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) will have the opportunity to appeal the ruling, which could have dramatic implications for the upcoming election in November (it’s unclear if any appeal would finish before ballots were cast). Reuters notes at least 775,000 felons have unpaid legal costs in the state, although some estimates say there could be up to 1.4 million.
Voting rights groups hailed the move on Sunday.
“The court recognized that conditioning a person’s right to vote on their ability to pay is unconstitutional,” Julie Ebenstein, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said in a statement. “This ruling means hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to rejoin the electorate and participate in upcoming elections. This is a tremendous victory for voting rights.”
Critics said the Florida GOP’s move in 2019 amounted a poll tax meant to disenfranchise voters once more. Hinkle noted in his ruling that many ex-felons aren’t even able to find out how much they owe until the state completes a screening of citizens by 2026 or later.
“In the meantime, year after year, federal and state elections will pass,” he wrote. “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.”
The judge did not find that the 2019 law discriminated based on race, however. A disproportionate number of felons in the state are African American.