Felons Not Allowed to Vote Yet in Florida Primary, Supreme Court Says

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The Supreme Court of Florida said on Thursday, June 16 it will not allow convicted felons to vote in a primary until they have paid fees, fines and restitution, according to state law. This is even if the felon has completed his or her sentence previously. The next step is for the case to go before federal judges in Atlanta, Georgia on August 18, primary day.

This decision means that felons who can’t afford to pay off all court fines, fees and restitution to victims are still unable to register to vote. The decision came on the heels of felony voting rights coming up last week due to the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups asking the justices to overturn a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. Voting rights for felons were blocked by 11th Circuit Judges who decided to strike down a federal judge’s ruling in Tallahassee. In the ruling, large numbers of poor felons were allowed to register to vote. 

An appeal will not be possible until August 18, which is the scheduled date of the Florida primary election.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has fought for poor felons to not be able to vote despite Floridians approving Amendment 4 in 2018 (Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 allowing felons to vote after their sentences are complete. The initiative won 64% approval.) This amendment overturned Florida’s Jim Crow-era law meant to keep Blacks from voting.

A group of felons represented by the ACLU and other groups quickly sued, claiming the Legislature created an unconstitutional “poll tax.” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in May agreed that court fees, which amount to hundreds of dollars and subsidize the criminal justice system, were a tax. In legal papers, the voting rights groups said most felons “cannot afford to pay what they owe.” Even those who can, they said, usually can’t figure out what they owe years after their convictions.The state responded that a felon’s inability to pay means the sentence has not been completed; therefore, voting rights should not be restored. 

Voting rights groups told the Supreme Court that Florida’s system amounts to a “poll tax” that violates the 24th Amendment to the Constitution. 

“This is a deeply disappointing decision,” said Paul Smith, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, which led the opposition to Florida’s rule. “Florida’s voters spoke loud and clear when nearly two-thirds of them supported rights restoration at the ballot box in 2018.”

Judge Hinkle also ruled that felons poor enough to receive a public defender for their criminal case were allowed to vote. He also created a process for other poor felons to ask Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the state’s election system, for an advisory opinion about their status.

The 11th Circuit judges temporarily stopped Hinkle’s order as soon as Governor DeSantis showed his disapproval. Florida’s Division of Elections then told the state’s elections supervisors to ignore Hinkle’s order, and to not allow felons to use the process Hinkle created.

It is believed that no matter what the outcome is in this case, it is likely to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.