Democrats and voting rights organizations in Florida lambasted the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Friday for ruling the state could deny felons the right to vote until they pay fines and fees.
They reversed a lower court’s ruling that the system established by lawmakers after voters approved Amendment 4, which redefined the meaning to complete a sentence, was unconstitutional. Under Amendment 4, which Florida voter passed overwhelmingly in 2018, felons who have completed their sentences would have voting rights restored.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone statewide-elected Democrat, has repeatedly bemoaned Republicans’ defense of the restriction and Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ role in stunting voting rights restoration.
“Although this ruling is a setback, we cannot allow ourselves to be set back in our pursuit of justice for those who have paid their debt to society,” Fried said in a statement. “This decision must only renew our fight to ensure all Floridians can exercise their Constitutional right to vote.”
Under DeSantis, the state Clemency Board, composed of the Governor and the Cabinet, has only restored the rights of 24 Floridians. Under then-Gov. Rick Scott, the board restored the rights of 3,000 felons. Under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the board restored rights to 155,000 felons, and it restored rights to another 76,000 under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Common Cause’s Florida chair, Liza McClenaghan, spoke out against the ruling as well.
“The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision issued today is anathema to our country’s values,” McClenaghan said. “Our republic is stronger when more people participate. The ability to vote should never be conditioned on economic circumstances. The ‘demos’ in democracy means all the people decide, not the moneyed people.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center derided the decision as “completely contrary to the words and spirit of our constitution.”
“With mere days before many Floridians begin voting in a historic General Election, the Eleventh Circuit today put forward a dangerously misguided decision that throws hundreds of thousands of Floridians into confusion about their sacred right to vote,” said Nancy Abudu, the group’s deputy legal director.
That confusion could lead felons to accidentally vote and commit voter fraud because the state isn’t required to clarify the standard for returning citizens.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, touched on the ruling during a Friday afternoon press conference.
“We’re living in a state that right now is forcing citizens to chose between putting food on the table for their kids, and voting,” Meade said.
“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,” he added in an official statement.
Shortly after the decision Friday, U.S. Rep. Val Demings introduced a bill to prohibit states from denying federal voting rights to citizens regardless of prior criminal convictions. The Representative, a former police chief who served 26 years as an officer in Orlando, titled her proposal “Every American Has the Right to Vote Act.”
“Every American should have the right and the responsibility to participate in our democracy,” the Democrat wrote in a news release. “I enforced the law for nearly three decades. Anyone who commits a crime should be held accountable. But committing a crime does not remove your humanity and it should not silence your voice. A debt to society must be paid, but that debt should never include our right to vote.”
DeSantis’ communications director, Fred Piccolo, took to Twitter to support the decision with a jab at the Governor’s critics.
“I fully expect everyone yelling at the governor today about the Constitution and the rule of law will happily accept the 11th circuit’s decision on amendment 4,” he tweeted.