A high-stakes federal trial opened Monday that could allow hundreds of thousands of felons to regain the right to vote in Florida, a battleground state that is expected to hold considerable sway in the November elections.
The state is home to about 1 million felons, possibly many more, who would represent a sizable voting bloc in any election and could help influence the outcomes of razor-thin elections that have become common in a crucial state.
A university study introduced as evidence in the trial being heard in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee suggests that at least 774,000 felons across Florida’s 67 counties are ineligible to vote because of financial debts.
At issue is Amendment 4, a voter-approved ballot measure that gave felons the right to vote.
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Months after voters approved the initiative in November 2018, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill later signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other legal financial obligations before their sentences could be considered fully served.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs described the financial stipulation as taxes imposed by Florida lawmakers as a condition for accessing the ballot box, a burden they said disproportionately blocks blacks and the poor from voting.
“They didn’t just put a price tag on voting. The evidence will show they created a system where returning citizens can’t even tell what the price is,” said Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice, among the groups representing plaintiffs.
“We’re talking about the voting rights of three-quarters of a million people. Obviously, that’s enough to determine plenty of local or statewide, or even wider, elections,” Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said before the trial. The ACLU also represents some of the plaintiffs in the case.
Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for the governor and the secretary of state’s office, said the intent of Amendment 4 was clear to voters: The ballot measure restores voting rights to felons after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole and probation.
“That language is unambiguous,” he asserted at trial. “That language includes the payment of fines, fees, costs, restitution and all other financial terms of the sentence before the restoration of voting rights.”
The Florida Supreme Court sided with DeSantis and his secretary of state, Laurel Lee, when it concluded in an advisory opinion in January that “all terms of sentence” means satisfying all legal financial obligations imposed with a guilty verdict.
“The system is not perfect, but the system gets it right most of the time,” Jazil said.
That statement brought a rebuke from Professor Dan Smith, the chair of the University of Florida’s political science department, who testified on behalf of plaintiffs in what is now a consolidated class action lawsuit against the state of Florida.
“I actually think the state should get it right of all the time when it comes to voting rights,” Smith said. Smith conducted a study on behalf of the plaintiffs that suggested how onerous it is for some felons to not only pay their financial obligations but to even find out what they owe because there is no central database that tracks the information.
According to his study, about 60 percent of those who owe money have debts exceeding $1,000. “This is not pocket change that we're talking about,” he said, suggesting later that many freed convicts are indigent and don't have the financial means to cover those debts.
Monday’s glitch-ridden trial before U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle was conducted by video and telephone because of the coronavirus outbreak. Technical difficulties often interrupted proceedings.
In October, Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction against the state. And in February, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit let the injunction stand. Last month, the Atlanta-based appellate court declined to hear a further appeal backed by the governor.
Hinkle's preliminary injunction did not preclude Florida from revoking voting rights to felons who have the means to repay outstanding financial obligations but who refuse. But he likened the state’s financial requirement to a poll tax if it continues to deny the vote to felons too poor to fully settle up.
Betty Riddle, who did not testify Monday, is among the 17 named defendants who had been denied the right to vote until Hinkle issued his preliminary injunction last fall.
At 62, she voted for the first time during the March 17 presidential primary, taking her place at the head of the line at a Sarasota community center early that morning, butterflies rising in her stomach.
“It was one of the greatest moments in my life,” said Riddle, who estimates she has $2,000 in legal financial obligations she cannot pay. “It was like getting your freedom back, allowing my voice to be heard.”