A federal judge ruled in October that it is unconstitutional for Florida to make ex-felons who have completed their sentences pay fines, legal fees, and restitution before having their voting rights restored under an amendment that took effect in January. The state’s lawyers are now arguing that if that ruling is allowed to stand, the entire law will be nullified, and ex-felons will be right back where they were before the amendment was passed—permanently barred from voting unless a merciful governor can be persuaded to restore their rights case by case.
Since it became a state in 1845, Florida has barred felons from voting. The law has been slightly altered since then, notably after the Civil War and in 1968, after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. But until 2007, ever more Floridians convicted of felonies were barred for life from voting. Their only hope was personally seeking gubernatorial clemency, which was rarely given.
That year, Republican (later Democrat) Gov. Charlie Crist managed to get the legislature to pass a law giving ex-felons who had finished their sentences the right to vote if the Parole Commission agreed. Excluded were convicted murderers and sex offenders. Ultimately, about 155,000 ex-felons got their voting rights back. But then the new Republican governor, Rick Scott, reversed that approach in 2011, adding a five-year waiting period before any ex-felon could apply for reinstatement of their voting rights. From 2011 to 2018, a piddling 3,000 applications were approved.
Consequently, in the 2016 election, a study showed that 1.7 million Floridians were permanently disenfranchised because of the felony law, 10.43% of the state’s population, the highest rate in the United States. At the time, 23.3% of black people couldn’t vote in Florida because of the law. How many of those people were turned into felons because of endemic injustices in the legal system is unknown but surely not insignificant.
The situation sparked court rulings on the capriciousness of the clemency system of reenfranchisement. And 13 months ago, thanks to a grassroots campaign, 65% of Floridians decided the system stank and voted for constitutional Amendment 4 to automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons upon completion of their sentences, including parole and probation. Murderers and sex offenders are excluded. Voting rights advocates were ecstatic. The law meant restoration of the vote to the largest group of disenfranchised citizens in the nation.
But Florida’s newest Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, arrived in office last January, and by June had pushed the Republican-dominated legislature to add a provision to the law requiring ex-felons to pay fines and fees before being eligible for reenfranchisement. Robert P. Alvarez at the Institute for Policy Studies wrote that this subverts Amendment 4. Sponsors say it amounts to an illegal poll tax. Others just call it voter suppression motivated by racism.
In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, a Clinton appointee to the federal bench, ruled that it’s unconstitutional to deny ex-felons the right to vote if they’re too poor to pay fines and other costs imposed on them by the courts. He said the state must come up with an administrative solution to provide ex-felons with a way to prove that they can’t pay. The state appealed his decision to the 11th Circuit Court. It also asked Hinkle for a stay until the appeal is completed.
The problem with that, Hinkle noted in a testy court session Wednesday, is that, given the speed with which the court system typically operates, no decision might be forthcoming in time for ex-felons to be able to register to vote for the March 17 Florida presidential primaries. The registration deadline is Feb. 18. Leah Aden, who represents the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the situation has voter-registration groups “at a loss for what to do.”
State lawyers told Hinkle that if his ruling isn’t stayed, evaluating ex-felons’ financial situations and registering the many tens of thousands of them eligible to vote would be an administrative burden. If the appeals court agrees with Hinkle, the lawyers said after much querying from Hinkle, the governor’s view is that this would make all of Amendment 4 law null because there is no severability that would allow the uncontested parts of a law to be separated from a part found to be unconstitutional.
Dara Kam reports in the Tampa Bay Times:
“If you really want to comply with the Constitution and let everyone who’s eligible to vote vote, pretty easy,” the judge said. “You put in place a constitutional system, it won’t matter if they (plaintiffs) like it or not. What you can’t do is to run out the clock so that people who are eligible to vote don’t get to vote in the March primary or, more importantly, in the presidential election.”
The reality here is a familiar one. If Republicans can figure out a way to suppress the vote of people more likely to vote for Democrats, not to mention suppress the votes of African Americans and other people of color, they’ll do it. Is it any surprise so many Republicans have jumped ship and consider Abraham Lincoln, the first president of their party, to be a lesser man than the squatter now occupying the White House?
Published with permission from Daily Kos.