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Voters head to a polling station to vote in Florida's primary election in Orlando. Image via AP.

2020

Judges: Florida felons can’t vote until they pay fines, fees

The appeals court 6-4 ruling has implications for the November election.

Florida felons must pay all fines, restitution and legal fees before they can regain their right to vote, a federal appellate court ruled Friday in a case that could have broad implications for the November elections.

Reversing a lower court judge’s decision that gave Florida felons the right to vote regardless of outstanding legal obligations, the order from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the position of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led state Legislature, leaving voting rights activists aghast.

Under Amendment 4, which Florida voters passed overwhelmingly in 2018, felons who have completed their sentences would have voting rights restored. But the legal dispute arose after lawmakers the next year moved to define what it means to complete a sentence.

In addition to prison time served, lawmakers directed that all legal financial obligations, including unpaid fines and restitution, would also have to be settled before a felon could be eligible to vote.

The appeals court agreed with the Republican lawmakers, a decision that voting rights advocates called an affirmation of a “pay-to-vote” system that primarily disenfranchises minorities and poor people.

“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. “The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy.”

In a 200-page ruling on a 6-4 vote, the full 11th Circuit said the Constitution’s due process clause was not violated by the passage of the law implementing Amendment 4.

“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,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion. “So long as a state provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility — as Florida does — due process requires nothing more.”

Four judges issued a dissenting opinion. They argued in part that it is sometimes extremely difficult for returning felons to know what outstanding financial obligations they may still have and that the state should create a mechanism to provide that information.

“In light of the chaos created by the majority’s holding that (financial obligations) must be satisfied according to the ‘every-dollar’ method, countless scores of individuals will be uncertain of their eligibility to vote,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin in the dissent.

“With its constitution amended in this way, Florida gained an obligation to establish procedures sufficient to determine the eligibility of returning citizens to vote, and to notify them of their eligibility in a prompt and reliable manner,” the dissenters added.

But Pryor wrote that it’s not the state’s responsibility to create a system to let felons know what they owe.

“The Due Process Clause does not require States to provide individual process to help citizens learn the facts necessary to comply with laws of general application,” he wrote.

DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo said in an email that the court’s decision affirms that “all terms of a sentence means all terms.”

“There are multiple avenues to restore rights, pay off debts, and seek financial forgiveness from one’s victims,” Piccolo added. “Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive.”

The amendment permanently bars convicted murderers and rapists from voting, regardless of financial debts. Still, other felons in Florida who have completed prison sentences and would otherwise be eligible but have not paid fines and other legal obligations — estimated in March to number about 774,000 — represent a significant bloc of voters, should they be allowed to cast ballots. Some of them may have settled their debts since that initial March estimate.

The state does not track how many felons have registered to vote since Amendment 4 passed, but its backers estimate that the monetary requirement and the coronavurs pandemic have limited the number to 100,000, far less than those potentially eligible.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has raised more than $4 million to help pay court costs. Donations have come from retired basketball star Michael Jordan as well as More Than a Vote, an organization dedicated to maximizing Black turnout that counts basketball star LeBron James and comedian Kevin Hart among its backers. Still, the total owed could be as high as $3 billion.

The ruling could influence the election outcome in November. Florida is considered a must-win state in President Donald’s Trump’s bid for reelection and is famed for its razor-thin statewide election results. Democrats had hopes of gaining support from thousands of former felons in Florida.

Paul Smith, vice president at the Campaign Legal Center which is pushing for full voting rights for most felons, slammed the ruling.

“This is a deeply disappointing decision,” said . “While the full rights restoration envisioned by Amendment 4 has become less likely to be realized this fall, we will continue this fight for all Florida voters, so the full benefits of Amendment 4 will someday be realized.”

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat from Orlando who was considered as a vice presidential nominee by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, said she is introducing a bill in Congress to prohibit states from denying voting rights to American citizens, regardless of prior criminal convictions.

“A criminal conviction does not erase a person from our communities or our country,” said Demings, who is Black and a former Orlando police chief.

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14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Tjb

    September 11, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    A slap to the face of Florida voters. Over 64 % of the voters in Florida supported granting felons the right to vote. The Republicans of Florida wants these citizens to pay what is essentially a poll tax, a violation of Amendment 24. While many of our Republican legislators are panicking about voter fraud, they have no issue suppressing the rights and the ability of Floridians to vote.

    • Ian

      September 11, 2020 at 9:35 pm

      The amendment I saw on the ballot said voting rights would be restored when a felon completed “all terms of sentence.” Even the amendment’s sponsors told the Florida Supreme Court that “all” really does mean “all” and that “all terms” includes fines, fees, and restitution. That’s the verbiage people voted for. Are you arguing that “all” does not mean “all”?

      • Tjb

        September 13, 2020 at 10:35 am

        While the creators of Amendment 4 agreed that “all terms” included financial obligations, they argued that they should be considered complete once financial obligations are transferred from the criminal justice system and turned into civil liens.

        • Ian

          September 13, 2020 at 12:42 pm

          That’s not what Jon Mills told the Fla Supreme Court back in 2017. He said felons would have to complete all terms of sentence included in the four corners of the sentence as handed down by the judge. No qualifiers were given. That’s the only way the justices would have approved the language. Under any other circumstances, the amendment would not even have appeared on the ballot, because “all” must truly equal “all” in order to meet constitutional muster for clarity.

  2. Richard T.

    September 11, 2020 at 6:05 pm

    No, Tjb. The Court was correct. The trial court’s sentence included the payment of fines, court costs, and in some instances, probation expenses and restitution. A felon is barred from voting until he/she completes all elements of the sentence. It is not that complex.

  3. No Felon voters

    September 11, 2020 at 6:29 pm

    This is GREAT NEWS,,, if you do the crime, pay the fine,, this will help President Trump, fantastic news!!!!!

  4. Sonja Fitch

    September 11, 2020 at 8:17 pm

    Can these folks declare bankruptcy like the Fing loser trump or any other citizen? If not then the decision is an over reach!

  5. Richard T.

    September 11, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    There are categories of debts that are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. Fortunately, the types that these people seek to avoid are among them.

  6. Palmer Tom

    September 11, 2020 at 11:53 pm

    The fact that the state has no system to determine who owes how much remains a flaw.

    • Ian

      September 12, 2020 at 8:36 am

      It remains a flaw in how the amendment was drafted, presented, and approved. Before the amendment appeared on the ballot, the amendment’s sponsor told the Florida Supreme Court that the system would work smoothly and easily, just like before the amendment was adopted, and that major systemic changes would not be needed. We now know that was just a lie.

  7. Dan Lanske

    September 12, 2020 at 8:30 am

    Although I prefered the previous system, this is good news. Restitution IS part of the sentence. If it wasn’t the Judge giving the sentence wouldn’t include it in the sencing hearing.

  8. Domino

    September 12, 2020 at 5:13 pm

    You can vote as a resident from another state or as a felon with outstanding fines and/or fess in Alachua County.

  9. Ron Ogden

    September 14, 2020 at 7:24 am

    Imagine if all this time had not been wasted in spurious legal wrangles, at least some of the affected people might have been moved to pay their fines and restitution. Downside: the lawyers and the reporters would have had to find something else to do.

  10. Martin

    September 14, 2020 at 12:10 pm

    Why does my Vote count WACKY TRUMP has been saying this for 2vwerks now all of sudden He doesnt say this for amendment 4 which by the way passed with 64% of republucans and demicrats saying yes hum I guess it depends on what ALL MEANES TO YOU?

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