A group of civil rights organizations filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida Friday after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would require felons to pay court-ordered financial obligations if they want their voting rights restored.
Florida's new law, SB7066, violates the prohibition against poll taxes enshrined in the 24th Amendment, claims a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Brennan Center for Justice and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The suit filed on behalf of 10 Floridians also claims the law was at least partly motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose in violation of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to people born or naturalized in the United States, and the 15th Amendment that prohibits the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race or color or previous servitude.
"This disenfranchisement will be borne disproportionately by low-income individuals and racial minorities, due to longstanding and well-documented racial gaps in poverty and employment," the lawsuit states.
An estimated 1.4 million Floridians with felony records had their voting rights restored in January after 64.5 percent of state residents voted last year to approve an amendment to Florida's constitution. The ballot initiative restored voting rights to residents with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, with the exception of those convicted of murder or a sexual offense.
But DeSantis began to undermine the voter-approved amendment in December just after he was elected.
DeSantis, then governor-elect, told The Palm Beach Post in an interview that the initiative shouldn't be rolled out until "implementing language" is approved by the legislature and signed by him.
"They’re going to be able to do that in March," DeSantis told the Post, referring to the 60-day legislative session beginning on March 5. "There's no way you can go through this session without implementing it."
The state's Republican-controlled legislature did in fact introduce a bill to curb felon voting rights in March, a bill that passed both chambers and was signed by DeSantis on Friday.
And while court fees vary per individual, even the smallest amounts can prove difficult for the formerly incarcerated. A Harvard University researcher found that the median annual income was only about $6,500 for those newly out of prison.
Civil rights groups have argued that forcing felons emerging from the criminal justice system to pay debilitating penalties is unconstitutional and equates simply to a poll tax.
“There can be no mistaking the racial and class implications of this regressive new legislation,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. “Florida legislators are trying to do an end run around the unmistakable message that Florida voters delivered at the ballot box in November."
Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued that the legislature disproportionately impacts black felons, and the Florida voter initiative was a step to remove a vestige of Jim Crow laws. Felon disenfranchisement prevented almost 20 percent of Florida’s black adults from exercising the right to vote.
"This law will disproportionately impact black Floridians with a felony conviction, who face the intersecting barriers of accessing jobs in a state with long-standing wealth and employment disparities," Alden said. "Because the Florida Legislature ignored these well-understood realities, SB 7066 must be stopped.”