Judge shuns Florida law that requires felons to pay fines before voting, awaits appeal from Governor Ron DeSantis
As regards appealing to Gov. Ron Desantis, a law of Florida demanding that felons should pay legal fees as part of their sentences before regaining the vote has been tagged “unconstitutional” for those unable to pay, or unable to find out how much they owe, a federal judge ruled Sunday.
The 125-page ruling was made available by United State District Court, Judge Robert, in Tallahassee. It involves state laid down rules to implement a 2016 ballot that had approval by voters to automatically to restore the voting right for many felons who are done with their sentence. The Republican-led Legislature stipulated that fines and legal fees must be paid as part of the sentence, in addition to serving any prison time.
Robert has acknowledged that he is unlikely to have the last word in the case, expecting the administration of Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis to launch any appeal.
The case could have deep ramifications in the crucial electoral battleground given that Florida has an estimated 774,000 disenfranchised felons who are barred because of financial obligations. Many of those felons are African Americans and presumably Democrats, though it’s unclear how that group of Floridians overall would lean politically in an election and how many would vote.
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The judge called the Florida rules a “pay to vote” system that are unconstitutional when applied to felons “who are otherwise eligible to vote but are genuinely unable to pay the required amount.”
A further complication is determining the exact amount in fines and other kinds of legal fees owed by felons seeking the vote — by some estimates it would take elections officials several years for those pending now. Hinkle said it’s unconstitutional to bar any voter whose amount owed could not be “determined with diligence.”
Hinkle ordered the state to require election officials to allow felons to request an advisory opinion on how much they owe — essentially placing the burden on elections officials to seek that information from court systems. If there’s no response within three weeks, then the applicant should not be barred from registering to vote, the ruling said.
Hinkle said the requirement to pay fines and restitution as ordered in a sentence is constitutional for those “who are able to pay” — if the amount can be determined.
The case, Kelvin Jones vs Ron DeSantis, consolidates five lawsuits filed by advocates of disenfranchised felons, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“This is a tremendous victory for voting rights,” Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “The court recognized that conditioning a person’s right to vote on their ability to pay is unconstitutional. This ruling means hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to rejoin the electorate and participate in upcoming elections.”
The 2018 ballot measure, known as Amendment 4, does not apply to convicted murderers and rapists, who are permanently barred from voting regardless of financial
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