In a historic civil rights case, a federal judge late Sunday ruled against Florida’s Republican governor and Legislature and dramatically expanded the number of eligible voters in the state to include former felons unable to pay their court fines and fees.
In his decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said efforts by Gov. Ron 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.
“Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed system, this one falls short in substantial respects,” the judge wrote. In a highly unusual move, the judge released his 125-page verdict Sunday evening over the Memorial Day weekend.
Complicating the upcoming 2020 elections, the judge put in place a new system where felons, excluding those convicted of murder or a sexual offense, can request an advisory opinion from the Division of Elections listing how much they may owe and whether they are eligible to vote. The answer must come within 21 days or felons can register to vote without fear of prosecution, the judge said. Felons can check a box that says, “I believe I am unable to pay the required amount.”
The verdict 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 the voting restrictions on felons. It’s also unclear how many of the newly eligible voters actually will register or cast ballots this year.
Trump 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 through April. The latest state registration figures showed 4.8 million Republicans, 5.1 million Democrats and 3.6 million independents.
The decision came after a week of testimony from political experts, felons and state officials. The verdict was released less than two weeks after the conclusion of the trial, starting the clock for a surge of new voter registrations.
The new ruling does not affect felons still in prison, or on parole, probation or another form of supervised release. They would still not be eligible to vote in Florida.
The judge said Florida was allowed to require felons to pay fines and fees before they would be allowed to vote – but his ruling allows them to vote if they represent they are unable to pay. Hinkle acknowledged that because Florida’s criminal courts are not administered centrally, it can be “not as easy as one might expect” for felons – or Florida election administrators – to know whether or how much they owe, especially for criminal convictions decades ago.
“Determining the amount that must be paid to make a person eligible to vote is sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes impossible,” he wrote.
The judge said Florida’s current system was so convoluted that even some eligible citizens might be discouraged from voting for fear of criminal prosecution. He said Florida’s promise that it wouldn’t prosecute potential voters who didn’t know they owed money “rings hollow.”
“The flaws in Florida’s approach are especially egregious because a person who claims a right to vote and turns out to be wrong may face criminal prosecution,” the judge wrote.
The judge said it was a close call legally whether Florida’s efforts to limit felons from voting might have been racially based, since Democrats in Tallahassee unanimously opposed the move. The judge noted trial testimony that blacks disproportionately favor Democrats, but he acknowledged that there was no evidence that lawmakers had indicated they were concerned about race: “The record includes no evidence of racial animus in any legislator’s heart – no evidence of racially tinged statements, not even dog whistles, and indeed no evidence at all that any legislator harbored racial animus,” the judge wrote.
The judge had indicated during the trial that he expected the governor to challenge the verdict in a federal appeals court in Atlanta, ahead of Florida’s primary elections in August. That court has already ruled at least twice against DeSantis during preliminary issues raised in the case.
Because of the pandemic, the trial was conducted virtually with lawyers and witnesses appearing by video conference but the judge in the courthouse in Tallahassee. The case was brought by 17 plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Brennan Center for Justice, NAACP and the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center.
Florida voters in 2018 approved restoring voting rights to felons, but DeSantis signed a Republican bill last year requiring felons to pay all their court fines and fees before they would be allowed to vote.
The judge noted that even his solution wasn’t perfect.
“The remedy is by no means perfect,” he wrote. “The pay-to-vote system will still make voter-registration efforts more difficult than they would be without the… requirement (to pay court costs) and will still deter at least some eligible citizens from registering and voting.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.