July 17, 2020

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn a ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that had itself blocked a lower court ruling that had struck down the Florida GOP's modern-day poll tax, meaning that the voting restriction is guaranteed to remain in effect for the Aug. 18 primary and likely for November, too. The lower court had struck down this law as an unconstitutional poll tax, but the Republican majority 11th Circuit stayed that ruling while Republicans appeal, and the 11th Circuit won't hear the appeal on the merits until the same day as the Aug. 18 primary.

Republicans passed their law last year after voters amended Florida's constitution in 2018 to end lifetime voter disenfranchisement for up to 1.4 million people who had served out sentences for all but the most serious crimes. An expert witness for the plaintiffs estimated that 775,000 citizens would be unable to pay the poll tax, in large part because Florida levies onerous fines to fund its court system. The court noted, for instance, that one county charges a minimum of $668 for a public defender—and $548 even for defendants who forgo one. Furthermore, 43% of the disenfranchised are Black, roughly three times the African American share of the state's overall adult population.

Before voters passed the 2018 initiative, Florida disenfranchised one in 10 adults, the highest proportion of any state, including one in five Black adults—five times the rate of white adults in Florida. This racial discrimination was no accident, either, since Florida’s lifetime voting ban was a product of the Jim Crow era.

In striking down the poll tax, the lower court's ruling meant that it's unconstitutional to condition voting rights upon the payment of court fees and costs. While requiring the payment of fines and restitution to victims can be constitutional in certain instances, the court said, it was unconstitutional when applied to citizens who are genuinely unable to pay the costs or who owe an amount that cannot be determined. Indeed, the state effectively makes it impossible for many voters to even find out the exact amount owed because Florida lacks adequate records.

However, because Republicans dominate the federal judiciary and Trump has flipped the 11th Circuit from a majority of Democratic appointees to a majority of Republican ones, and the Supreme Court’s Republican majority has ruled against voting rights in every single case this year. Republican judges now appear highly likely to ensure that this law remains in effect for November even if they ultimately side with the plaintiffs on the merits, an outcome that itself is still very much in doubt given Chief Justice John Roberts’ career-long crusade against voting rights.

Consequently, the poll tax will prevent thousands of Florida citizens from exercising their rights this year despite the Constitution's 24th Amendment banning the disenfranchising of voters "by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax." This ruling reinforces the urgency of Democrats winning the presidency and Senate in November so that they may begin reshaping the federal judiciary to ensure it upholds the right to vote.

This post republished with permission from Daily Kos.

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