In one of the most significant federal trials in Florida – a voting rights case that may affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election – the courtroom in Tallahassee on Monday was eerily empty.
The trial opened in the dispute over Florida’s law requiring former felons to pay all fines and fees before they can register to vote. Due to health concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, only the judge, court deputy clerk and court reporter were allowed inside the courtroom. Attorneys and witnesses participated remotely by video, as the public and reporters listened by telephone.
The long-awaited trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida before Judge Robert L. Hinkle, comes after more than a year of battles over the right to vote for former felons. More than 60% of Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in November 2018 that was intended to restore voting rights for felons after they serve their sentences.
Hinkle has hinted he is sympathetic toward the plaintiffs in the case. In October he issued a preliminary injunction reinstating the voting rights of the 17 plaintiffs of the case, ruling that the state could not keep them from voting based on their financial inability to pay outstanding fines and fees.
Earlier this month, Hinkle approved a class-action order, so the final ruling in the case will extend to all voters in Florida.
On the trial’s first day, Hinkle largely kept his thoughts about the case to himself. There is no jury in the case.
President Trump won Florida’s 29 electoral votes by 112,911 votes over Hillary Clinton in 2016. A ruling that dramatically expands the number of voters could imperil Trump’s chances of winning Florida – and the White House.
The virus outbreak has brought unprecedented closures around the country, including a shutdown of all in-person court proceedings in Florida. Key players in the case presented evidence through screen sharing. At times, lawyers or witnesses had to repeat themselves due to an unclear connection.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers said a Republican-backed effort requiring felons to pay all court fines and fees before they can vote was unconstitutional, saying it made voting available to only the privileged.
“Florida’s complex web of fines and fees, now expressly tangled up with the right to vote, has only exacerbated the state system of taxation without representation for returning citizens,” said Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice.
The lawyer for Gov. Ron DeSantis, Mohammad Jazil, said language in the Senate bill was clear that legal obligations must be met before felons can vote. He acknowledged the requirement unfairly affected minorities, but disputed claims by plaintiffs’ lawyer Nancy Abudu of the Southern Poverty Law Center that it violated the 19th Amendment.
“The system is not perfect, but the system gets it right most of the time,” Jazil said.
Latoya A. Moreland, 39, an unemployed ex-felon in Bradenton, said she owes $645 in overdue fines and fees. She recently voted in the Florida primaries and hopes to cast another ballot in November’s elections.
Moreland said she was unaware of the fines she owed until August, when she received a letter about them. She said she was convicted in June 2011. Circuit Court records show she was convicted on felony cocaine charges in Manatee County after a traffic stop, and sentenced to two years’ probation.
Moreland said she doesn’t recall receiving legal documents regarding these fines at the time, but the fees were cited in court records. She asked a judge in January 2016 to help her avoid collection-agency fees on top of the money she already owed, court records showed.
“Like many African Americans – African American women – we get the rough end of everything. It’s like if you make a bad choice, a bad decision, it’s held against you,” Moreland said.
Defense attorney Tara Price noted that Moreland did not contact the supervisor of elections upon receiving this letter.
Dan A. Smith, chairman of the political science department at the University of Florida and expert for the plaintiffs, identified more than 1 million Floridians with past felony convictions who have completed their time in prison or are no longer under community supervision. Smith said 77.4% of them still owe fines or fees.
Smith disputed Jazil’s comment that the system usually gets it right.
“I actually think the state should get it right all of the time, not most of the time,” Smith said.
Even as the trial opened, Florida’s Division of Elections proposed a new rule Monday adopting new voter registration documents dealing with whether a voter has a felony conviction. The agency said it would accept public comments on the proposal until May 18. It was not clear whether Hinkle was aware of the state’s outside-the-courtroom efforts, which could be rendered moot by his eventual ruling in the case.
The trial was expected to continue Tuesday morning.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.