TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge signaled that he would find part of a Florida law restricting the voting rights of former felons unconstitutional as a high-stakes trial in the presidential battleground state wrapped up Wednesday.
The outcome of the litigation could clear the way for hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions to vote in a state where elections are won and lost by razor-thin margins. It’s also likely that the legal battle could go to the U.S. Supreme Court before it’s finally resolved.
A law passed in 2019 by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature requires people who have been convicted of a felony to pay outstanding court debts in order be eligible to vote. GOP legislators passed the bill after voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that aimed to end the state’s lifetime ban on voting for most people with felony convictions.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle made clear that he would rule that Florida could not impose the restriction on anyone unable to pay their outstanding debts. The decision lines up with a preliminary ruling from Hinkle that later was upheld by a federal appeals court.
“The Legislature plainly intended that you had to pay the money in order to vote, and if you didn’t pay the money you didn’t vote,” Hinkle said.
The civil rights and voting rights groups challenging the law have made additional arguments. They say the law amounts to an illegal poll tax and unfairly discriminates against minorities and women because it has a greater impact on those groups.
Hinkle agreed with lawyers for the state that there was no direct evidence that legislators sought to target minorities, but he said there is “clearly a racial impact” because a higher percentage of people with felony convictions in Florida are African American.
Hinkle said he plans to order Florida to take steps to fix problems caused by the law and might issue a “bold statement,” but, “I expect to be a whole lot easier to administer” than the current system, he said.
There was testimony throughout the trial about the byzantine process that felons and election officials must go through to figure out if they owe money.
The state says it has identified as many 85,000 registered voters who might be ineligible to vote despite Amendment 4. But Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews acknowledged in testimony that the state has not begun the process of review to determine which voters have outstanding debts that violate the new law.
One study by a University of Florida political science professor said as many as 775,000 people with past felony convictions might be ineligible to vote because of the law.
Lawyers for the state have maintained that voters who approved Amendment 4 wanted people with felony convictions to pay their debt to society fully before being able to vote. They also featured testimony from Desmond Meade, leader of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a nonprofit group that championed the amendment and campaigned for its passage.
Meade, in a videotaped deposition, said that while the law was not perfect, he and his organization could live with it. His coalition did not join the lawsuit, which was filed by more than two dozen ex-felons, the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Florida. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing some plaintiffs in the case.
In his closing arguments Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration, suggested that if Hinkle found part of the law unconstitutional then he should have to rule that Amendment 4 itself is unconstitutional.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in January that the amendment required the payment of all fines, fees and restitution as part of “all terms of sentence.”
“This is not something the state wants,” Jazil said. “We did not set loose the dogs of war but we must go where they lead us.”
More than 5 million Florida voters cast ballots in favor of Amendment 4, which automatically restored voting rights to convicted criminals who had served their time, with exceptions for murders and sex offenders.
Legislators, contending the amendment was vague, passed the bill requiring payment of outstanding financial obligations.