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Florida can't bar felons from vote over fines and fees, court rules

The state constitutional amendment was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2018 to allow most felons who served their time to regain the right to vote.
Image: Florida Felon Vote
People gather around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami on Oct. 22, 2018.Wilfredo Lee / AP file

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida cannot, for now, bar felons who served their time from registering to vote simply because they have failed to pay all fines and fees stemming from their cases, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Tallahassee federal judge's preliminary injunction that a state law implementing Amendment 4 amounted to an unfair poll tax that would disenfranchise many of the released felons.

The state constitutional amendment was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2018 to allow most felons who served their time to regain the right to vote. But the Republican-led Legislature soon after passed a law stipulating that they had to first pay any fines and fees before their sentences could be deemed complete under the law.

“We disagree with the ruling," said Helen Ferre, the chief spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. She said the state would immediately ask the entire 11th Circuit to reconsider the ruling.

Voting rights groups representing 17 plaintiffs sued federal court, seeking to overturn the law.

In its ruling Wednesday, the circuit court said the financial requirement "punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can — and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box."

The court added that previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings required it to “apply heightened scrutiny in asking whether the requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to these plaintiffs.”

The appeals court ruled that it does, and it affirmed the preliminary injunction issued last year by a federal district court judge in Tallahassee.

Last year's preliminary injunction allowed felons to register to vote, regardless of their ability to pay fines, restitution and other fees. It was issued ahead of a full trial that is scheduled to begin in April.

The appellate court's ruling came one day after Tuesday's registration deadline for Florida's March 17 presidential preference primary.

While Wednesday's ruling only applies to the plaintiffs, the case has broad ramifications for the 1.6 million Florida felons who have completed their prison sentences and could regain their voting privileges under Amendment 4.

“This is a tremendous win for our clients and for our democracy," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice.

The appellate court, he said, “confirmed once again that the U.S. Constitution does not allow states to deny the right to vote to citizens because of their inability to pay a fine or fee.”