Daniel Rivero, NPR, April 27, 2020
A contentious federal civil rights trial is slated to begin Monday that will determine whether hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions will be able to vote this fall in the swing state of Florida.
On one side of the case is Florida, along with a slew of other states supporting it from the sidelines.
On the other, hundreds of thousands of people who have completed their sentences but currently can’t vote because of one thing they lack: money.
The much-anticipated class action trial comes a year and a half after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 to the state’s constitution, which automatically restores voting rights to most people with felony convictions after they complete “all terms of their sentence.”
Soon after the vote, state lawmakers passed a bill defining “all terms” to mean that all fines, fees and restitution connected to a case would have to be paid before someone regained the right to vote.
That law triggered the lawsuit, with the plaintiffs arguing that the requirement to pay all fines and fees effectively creates a lifetime sentence for crimes they’ve tried to move on from.
Florida has already lost several legal battles tied to the law.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who will be hearing the case, issued a temporary ruling that was upheld by an appellate court that anyone who is “genuinely unable” to pay what is owed should be able to vote.
An estimated 82% of people with felony convictions have not yet paid the money they owe, according to expert witness testimony submitted in the case by University of Florida professor Daniel Smith.
Politically the case has largely split along party lines, with Democrats in favor of granting voting rights to people who still owe money, while Republicans are opposed. But the plaintiffs have gotten some support from some libertarians.
Until Amendment 4 passed, Florida had barred people with felony convictions from voting for life since 1868, a few years after the Civil War. For years the only way to get rights restored was through the state’s clemency board, made up of the governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner. But the number of people granted clemency varied widely depending on the administration.
A federal judge in 2018 ruled that the state’s clemency process was unconstitutional, highly politicized and disproportionately stacked against African Americans.