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Important Florida Voting Rights Trial Concludes After Week Of Testimony 

The campaign for restoring voting rights to felons was resoundingly approved by Florida voters last November.
The campaign for restoring voting rights to felons was resoundingly approved by Florida voters last November.

An important voting rights trial concluded Wednesday in Florida's capital after a week of testimony. Lawyers argued to a federal judge whether a state law is unconstitutional in requiring that even impoverished felons must pay court fees and fines before they are allowed to vote.

It was unclear when U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle will issue his decision, but lawyers said a verdict could come as early as next week.

Due to health risks from the pandemic, witnesses and lawyers for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and a group of felons who had sued testified by video conference, with Hinkle in the courthouse in Tallahassee. There was no jury in the case.

The judge at one point summarized the case succinctly, referring to a bill passed last year by the Legislature requiring felons to pay their fines and fees before they can vote. Civil rights groups have complained that the requirement amounts to an illegal poll tax imposed on some of society's poorest individuals, since felons often wrestle with finding housing and employment once they are released from prison.

“The Legislature plainly intended that you had to pay the money to be able to vote, and if you didn’t pay the money, you couldn’t vote,” Hinkle said.

Hinkle last year issued a preliminary injunction in the same case – later upheld by a federal appeals court – temporarily allowing the 17 plaintiffs to vote. He said then that the payment requirement was unconstitutional.

The verdict could have broad political consequences. President Donald Trump narrowly won Florida in 2016, but former Vice President Joe Biden has regularly been polling slightly ahead of Trump in Florida the last month. A ruling that dramatically expands the number of voters could imperil Trump’s chances of winning the state again – and the White House.

Plaintiff’s attorney Leah Aden of the NAACP said the Legislature’s requirement about fines and fees intentionally targeted minorities and violated the Constitution’s amendments guaranteeing citizens equal protections and prohibiting discrimination by race or color.

“It was motivated by a discriminatory intent to limit black voters’ access to franchise,” Aden said. “Defendants offered no evidence that the motivation was a partisan advantage free from any racial consideration,” she said.

Other lawyers said the same Florida law also unfairly discriminated against women and poor people.

The governor’s lawyer, Mohammad Jazil, disputed any “racially disproportionate effect,” and cited a non-binding decision supporting the law earlier this year by the Florida Supreme Court.

A key point of contention in Florida is how felons or election officials can determine whether they owe overdue fines or fees, since there is no central reporting system for court costs. Oren Rosenthal, an attorney for Miami-Dade County, the state's largest, said asking county supervisors of elections to decide each person's case wasn't feasible ahead of November's elections.

Tensions flared earlier this week between the judge and Maria Matthews, the director for Florida's Division of Elections, who testified for more than seven hours.

Matthews said her elections office does not contact collection agencies to see whether prospective voters owe court fees. She said it relies on legal databases, court websites, public records and files from the Corrections Department to know whether fees have been paid.

The judge pressed her about cases in which felons may not know whether they owe unpaid fines, and Matthews said county elections officials determine whether the person is credible.

“One option available is, if someone is concerned about that, that they could request an advisory opinion and that advisory opinion could serve as criminal immunity for them,” Matthews said.

The judge expressed disbelief at her response.

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 linamruiz@ufl.edu.

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