Sam Levine, The Guardian, January 16, 2020
With Florida’s primary election quickly approaching, the state’s supreme court ruled it was constitutional to place restrictions on up to 1.4 million former felons who regained the right to vote in the state last year.
Thursday’s advisory opinion lends legal support to a Republican measure that requires Floridians with felony convictions in their past to repay all fines, fees and obligations ordered as part of their sentence to the state before they can cast a ballot. If it remains in place, this could disenfranchise an estimated 80% of the newly enfranchised Floridians who had won the right to vote through Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that passed with majority support in 2018.
The opinion is a blow to voting rights advocates and a win for Republicans who imposed restrictions on one of the most significant expansions of the right to vote in a generation. If carried out, this could affect the outcome of the upcoming presidential election since Florida is a politically competitive state where just a few thousand people can swing an election.
Civil rights groups said the Republican-backed law is effectively a poll tax because many people never pay back the money they owe as part of their sentence. It can also be extremely confusing for people to figure out how much money they owe because there is no centralized system in Florida – which could keep even those who don’t owe fines and fees from registering to vote.
“The Florida supreme court’s decision is disappointing,” said Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “By holding Floridians’ right to vote hostage, the Florida supreme court is permitting the unconstitutional modern-day poll tax.”
A provision in the law allows courts to modify and even waive fines and fees. But so far, just four counties, all Democratic-leaning, are utilizing that part of the law.
There is currently a separate federal case challenging the measure. In October, a judge in that case ruled the state could not prohibit the 17 plaintiffs from registering to vote if they “genuinely” could not pay. But with less than two months to the primaries, hundreds of thousands of Floridians may still be left out of the election.
“We remain committed to operating under the letter of the law, and look forward to getting as many people back into our democracy as possible,” said Desmond Meade, the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, concerning Thursday’s court decision.