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Trial begins in bitter dispute over felons’ voting rights

The clash over voting rights is rooted in Republican lawmakers’ interpretation of Amendment 4.

A federal trial that could determine whether hundreds of thousands of Floridians can cast ballots in this year’s presidential election kicked off Monday, as lawyers battle over a state law requiring felons who’ve served their time behind bars to pay “legal financial obligations” before voting.

The clash over voting rights is rooted in Republican lawmakers’ interpretation of a 2018 constitutional amendment aimed at restoring voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

In a partisan vote last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature interpreted the amendment to require felons to pay court-ordered “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines, costs and restitution — to be eligible to vote.

National voting-rights groups challenged the law, arguing that it amounted to an unconstitutional “poll tax” that would prevent “returning citizens” from casting ballots.

Sean Morales-Doyle, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, branded the Florida statute as an extension of the state’s 150-year practice of suppressing voting rights of felons, blacks and poor people.

In passing the legislation (SB 7066) last year, Florida lawmakers “didn’t just put a price tag on voting,” Morales-Doyle, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, said during opening arguments.

“They created a system where returning citizens can’t tell what the price is and where the price might be different from one county to another,” he said. “Florida’s Legislature and governor knew just what they were doing to black Floridians, and they did it anyway.”

But Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer who represents Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, said the law carries out the words — and the intent — of the constitutional amendment, which appeared on the 2018 ballot as Amendment 4.

“The ‘all terms of sentence’ language is clear. That language is unambiguous. 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 proponents of Amendment 4 said so themselves,” Jazil argued.

Siding with plaintiffs in an October preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the state cannot deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable” to pay financial obligations associated with their convictions. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction, which applied only to the 17 named plaintiffs in the case. Hinkle this month granted class certification to plaintiffs, adding potentially hundreds of thousands of felons to the lawsuit.

Hinkle’s October ruling also ordered the DeSantis’ administration to come up with a process in which felons could try to prove they are unable to pay financial obligations and should be able to vote.

Under pressure from plaintiffs’ lawyers in the days leading up to the trial, lawyers representing the administration released a procedure for identifying felons who had outstanding financial obligations. Plaintiffs’ lawyers maintain the process is inadequate and accused the state of intentionally waiting until the last minute to release the details.

Jazil took umbrage at the accusation.

“The evidence will show that the state was asking questions. The state was identifying shortcomings. The state was working to find solutions,” he said. “The state was trying to avoid a premature rollout that would have caused confusion.”

Because of social-distancing restrictions in response to COVID-19, the judge and the parties in the case, including witnesses, participated in the trial by video. The public could listen over the phone. It was not clear how many days the trial will last.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers and witnesses on Monday identified a host of flaws with the 2019 law, which Nancy Abudu, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said imposes an even greater burden on black women, who have an especially difficult time finding employment after being convicted of felonies.

The 2019 law makes “voting rights available to only the most privileged amongst us,” she said.

“If you are rich, if you are white, and if you are male, you have a much higher probability of being immune to SB 7066’s onerous financial requirements,” she told Hinkle.

Plaintiffs maintain the law is problematic, in part, because the state lacks a single database where felons can verify if they have outstanding legal financial obligations.

But Jazil pointed to “the ease of registration in Florida and the safeguards built into the system before someone is removed” from the voting rolls.

“The system is not perfect, but the system gets it right most of the time,” he said.

Much of Monday’s proceedings involved testimony by two experts, who analyzed data about Florida felons’ outstanding financial obligations.

County records are incomplete, have contradictory information and are confusing, Northwestern University political science professor Traci Burch said.

More than three-quarters of the 1 million felons in Florida who have completed their time in prison or jail have outstanding financial obligations, University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith testified, adding that black people are more likely than whites to have unpaid financial obligations.

Almost 80% of felons who have outstanding legal financial obligations owe at least $500, and about 60% owe more than $1,000, according to Smith.

Smith’s research also showed that a “disproportionate” number of the people who owe money are indigent.

People who have been convicted of felonies earn less money, are more likely to be unemployed and are 10 times more likely to be homeless, according to Smith.

“I think the deck is stacked against them,” he said.

Under the state’s plan, voter registration records are flagged if three “demographics” match files found in a variety of databases. The plan instructs state elections workers to “use common sense” to make determinations about voter eligibility.

Smith said the process lacks clarity and could easily result in eligible voters being wrongly flagged.

“Honestly, I have real problems determining what criteria are actually being used, whether those criteria are the same for every individual, and how ‘common sense’ comes in to make these determinations,” he said.

A proposed voter-registration form released the day the trial began is “a hot mess,” according to Smith.

Smith, who has been an expert witness in numerous elections lawsuit, also criticized Jazil’s representation of the state’s process as being accurate “most of the time.”

“I actually think the state should get it right all of the time,” he said.


Republished with permission from the News Service of Florida.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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