On-again, off-again voting in Florida
An appeals court upholds felon voting requirements as the election draws closer
A decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could leave tens of thousands of registered voters unable to participate in November’s election. The court ruled 6-4 to uphold a state regulation requiring former felons to pay all outstanding fines before they can cast a ballot.
“States are constitutionally entitled to set legitimate voter qualifications through laws of general application and to require voters to comply with those laws through their own efforts,” wrote 11th Circuit Chief Judge William Pryor, who has been on President Donald Trump’s shortlist of potential Supreme Court nominees.
In November 2018, Floridians voted to pass Amendment 4 to allow people convicted of a felony other than a murder or sex offense to vote after they finished their sentences. Before that, the state had been one of several that permanently disenfranchised felons absent a special appeal. In May 2019, the Republican-dominated legislature passed a law defining conviction-related fines and fees as part of the sentence criminals had to complete. A group of ex-felons sued, and a U.S. district judge sided with them. The 11th Circuit’s decision overturns that ruling and lets the 2019 law stand.
Daniel A. Smith, chairman of political science at the University of Florida, submitted a study to the lower court in March that estimated almost 775,000 felons owed the state money and couldn’t vote under the new law. Unpaid fines and fees in South Florida alone amounted to more than $1 billion, the Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported. Across the state, that number could reach $3 billion.
Voting rights for those convicted of a felony vary widely by state. In Maine and Vermont, felons can vote from prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 16 states allow them to vote immediately upon release. The rest can require prisoners to finish their parole or probation, wait for a specified amount of time, or pay off their debt to the court system and victims. Iowa, Virginia, and Kentucky all permanently disenfranchise felons unless the governor offers a special reprieve. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has restored voting rights to tens of thousands of ex-convicts.
Many activists are pushing for a full restoration of voting rights to former felons on their release from prison. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a nonprofit founded by ex-criminals, immediately condemned Friday’s decision.
“The 11th Circuit’s decision is a blow to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of returning citizens across Florida who should have an opportunity to participate in this incredibly important election,” FRRC executive director Desmond Meade said.
Critics compared the law to the poll tax states once imposed to prevent African Americans from voting. Many have accused the Republican legislature of passing the law for political reasons. Smith’s study found 45 percent of the hundreds of thousands of ex-felons in debt to the state are African American, a traditionally Democratic voting bloc. Political experts agree that Trump, who in the 2016 election edged out Hillary Clinton in Florida by just more than 1 percent of votes, must win the state this year to have a chance at reelection. Polls collected by FiveThirtyEight indicate Democratic candidate Joe Biden holds about a 2 percent lead in the state right now.
The office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, defended the law. “There are multiple avenues to restore rights, pay off debts, and seek financial forgiveness from one’s victims,” Fred Piccolo, DeSantis’ communications director, said. “Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive.”
The court did not cite political reasoning in its decision, but the judges noted the importance of the result.
“I doubt that today’s decision—which blesses Florida’s neutering of Amendment 4—will be viewed as kindly by history,” dissenting Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote.
Pryor and the judges in the majority responded directly to Jordan and the rest of the dissent.
“Our duty is not to reach the outcomes we think will please whoever comes to sit on the court of human history,” Pryor wrote. “And in the end, as our judicial oath acknowledges, we will answer for our work to the Judge who sits outside of human history.”
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