A federal judge has delivered a landmark ruling for voting rights, arguing that Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system is unconstitutional and officials cannot condition voting rights on an individual’s wealth.
States have the right to limit who can vote and when — but only within reason. In 2018, Floridians overwhelmingly voted for a constitutional amendment (known as Amendment 4), which restores voting rights to individuals with past felony convictions automatically, upon the completion of their sentence. The ruling came Sunday night from the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida, delivering a major victory for voting-rights advocates.
Florida’s Republican-held state legislature, backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), codified the amendment in early 2019. However, lawmakers included a provision in which individuals who have completed their sentence must also pay any and all outstanding legal fees, fines, or restitution before their rights are restored.
Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that this provision effectively undermined the spirit of Amendment 4. Hinkle’s decision states that the right to vote cannot be conditioned on whether an individual can afford legal financial obligations — which voting-rights groups called a “modern-day poll tax.”
Hinkle’s order allows these individuals to request an advisory opinion regarding their rights when they cannot meet these obligations. Nearly eight in 10 Floridians with a past felony conviction owe more than $500 in legal financial obligations.
“A state may disenfranchise felons and impose conditions on their re-enfranchisement,” Hinkle writes in his 125-page ruling, “but the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny.”
Officials had a system in place for eight years prior to Amendment 4’s passage, but that left re-enfranchisement up to a clemency board’s discretion. Hinkle argues that this system was so flawed that “the Executive Clemency Board was an illusory remedy.”
The lawsuit — led by the Campaign Legal Center, the ACLU, the NAACP, and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice — was a first-of-its-kind class action lawsuit, which means that whatever the court ruled for the plaintiffs in this case applies to every formerly convicted felon in Florida.
Daniel Tilley, legal director for the ACLU of Florida, said that Hinkle’s ruling was “a powerful reminder that no one can trump the US Constitution.”
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