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Pending Hearing, US Appeals Court Blocks Judge’s Ruling Allowing Felons to Vote in Florida

The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is located in Atlanta and could hear arguments in a National Rifle Association lawsuit against Florida. (Courtesy of U.S. Court of Appeals)
The United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit is located in Atlanta and could hear arguments in a National Rifle Association lawsuit against Florida. (Courtesy of U.S. Court of Appeals)

A federal appeals court granted Florida's governor a permanent injunction Wednesday, putting on hold a judge's ruling that had dramatically expanded the number of eligible voters in the state to include former felons unable to pay their court fines and fees.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta said its full panel of judges intends to consider the appeal by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Appeals judges there had already ruled at least twice against DeSantis during preliminary issues raised in the case. The court did not immediately set a schedule for written briefs and oral arguments.

The appeals court's decision throws into turmoil the question of how many felons and which ones may be able to vote in Florida during the 2020 elections, with the Aug. 18 primaries only about six weeks away. The deadline for new voters to register to vote in Florida’s primaries is July 20, less than three weeks away.

The legal dispute could add hundreds of thousands of people to voting rolls in Florida, expected to be a battleground state in President Donald Trump’s re-election plans. It’s unclear whether those new voters would benefit one political party, but Republicans eager to deliver Florida to Trump were responsible for imposing voting restrictions on felons. It’s also unclear how many of the newly eligible voters actually will register or cast ballots this year.

Trump narrowly won Florida by about 112,000 votes over Clinton in 2016, but former Vice President Joe Biden has been polling ahead of Trump in Florida.

Just weeks ago, on May 24, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled against DeSantis. He said efforts by DeSantis and state lawmakers were unconstitutional and restricted the voting rights of nearly 1 million citizens who would otherwise be eligible to vote only if they pay those court-imposed fines, fees and restitution to their criminal victims. The judge called Florida’s system “pay to vote.”

A three-judge appeals panel in Atlanta had previously declined a request by the governor to block plaintiffs in the case from registering to vote until Hinkle’s ruling, and the full appeals court had backed that decision against DeSantis. 

Wednesday’s surprise decision sends the whole case up to Atlanta, where all the circuit judges will collectively determine whether to reverse Hinkle’s decision. His ruling is frozen as a result, and it was not immediately clear whether felons who might owe unpaid debts in Florida could lawfully register to vote in the upcoming primaries. 

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Mark Gaber of the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, an advocacy group, said he was surprised by Wednesday’s decision – especially since circuit judges had already ruled against DeSantis twice – and said he hopes the full appeals court moves quickly in time for the November election.  


This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at lruiz@freshtakeflorida.com

Lina is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.