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Court struggles with felon vote in Fla., case could determine participation in November

The state allows felons to vote after completing the terms of their sentences, including fines. But many cannot afford to pay all their court costs.
People gather around a Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4, which would restore voting eligibility to 1.4 million returning citizens in Florida, in Miami on October 2018.
People gather around a Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4, which would restore voting eligibility to 1.4 million returning citizens in Florida, in Miami on October 2018.Wilfredo Lee / AP file

A federal appeals court appeared closely divided Tuesday over making it easier for tens of thousands of convicted felons in Florida to vote if they haven't paid all their court fines and fees.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the issue on the same day Florida was conducting its primary election, so the court's decision could determine how many felons can vote in the November general election.

A 2019 state law allows convicted felons to vote if they have completed all the terms of their sentences, including jail time, parole and fines. But many cannot afford to pay all of the court costs. And even those who can are finding it difficult to find out from the state exactly how much they owe.

A majority of Florida's more than three-quarters of a million residents with prior felony convictions who would otherwise be eligible to take part in elections are Black and more likely to vote Democratic, and could be a significant voting bloc in a state where election results are often close. So far only an estimated 100,000 have been added to the voter rolls.

Civil rights groups representing convicted prisoners challenged the fee requirement, and a federal judge ruled in their favor. A panel of the federal appeals court at first upheld the ruling in favor of the challengers but then reversed itself and ruled for the state, requiring convicted felons to pay off all fines in order to vote.

The challengers urged the Supreme Court to put the lower court ruling back in effect. But by a 6-3 vote in July, it declined to do so. The full federal appeals court then agreed to hear the case.

Charles Cooper, a Washington lawyer representing Florida, told the appeals court in a hearing by teleconference that the Constitution allows states to permanently disqualify felons from the voter rolls. In agreeing to amend the state constitution to allowing them to get the vote back, "The voters decided that the right to vote of a person who lost it as a consequence of his conviction for a felony should be restored only if he has paid the full debt he owes to society."

Chief Judge William Pryor asked if that requirement should be considered the equivalent of a poll tax, which the Constitution's 24th Amendment forbids. "I'm having a big problem with your argument that the 24th Amendment doesn't apply," he said.

Paul Smith of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington said requiring a payment in order to vote does amount to poll tax. Most of the ex-felons seeking to vote actually owe small amounts, often less than $1,000, in fees that are assessed automatically to cover court costs, not in fines or orders of restitution, he said.

Nancy Abudu of the Southern Poverty Law Center said, "When it comes to voting, the size of a person's pocketbook alone should never dictate access to the ballot box."

But Judge Kevin Newsom said because Florida did not have to allow felons to vote again, it can set conditions and requirements on getting the right back. He asked how requiring the payment of fees to vote again is any different from requiring someone who wants a hunting license to pay a fee.

There's no deadline for the appeals court to act, but all sides hope for a ruling before November.