A federal judge has ruled against a Florida law saying ex-felons can only vote if they are up to date on money owed to the state.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle declared the rule as unconstitutional in his 55-page opinion. Hinkle acknowledged in his Friday ruling that the law will still likely go through the Florida Supreme Court or a federal trial.
The Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Orange County Branch of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida challenged the law, which has ultimately led to the preliminary injunction from Hinkle. There are 17 plaintiffs reportedly affected by the law who are being represented in the case.
It was in November of last year that Florida voters decided to restore the voting rights of ex-felons who had served their time through Amendment 4. The Florida Legislature responded by passing a law over the summer that said ex-felon voters needed to be caught up on financial restitutions before they could vote.
“There’s just no way to get around the fact that the Legislature did everything it could to undermine Amendment 4,” Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said to Bloomberg News at the time. “I don’t think it’s consistent with the will of the voters, and it’s not consistent with the text of Amendment 4.”
Groups in support of Amendment 4 have presented research that shows that a vast majority of ex-felons still owe money to the state.
“The state of Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution,” Hinkle wrote in his opinion on the matter. “And because, for this purpose, there is no reason to treat restitution differently from other financial obligations included in a sentence, Florida also cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources to pay the other financial obligations.”
Hinkle argued that Florida needs to set up a process where ex-felons can register to vote and, if needed, prove that they cannot pay money they owe.
“Suppose a state adopted a statute automatically restoring the right to vote for felons with a net worth of $100,000 or more but not for other felons,” Hinkle asked at one point in his ruling. “Would anyone contend this was constitutional? One hopes not. An official who adopts a constitutional theory that would approve such a statute needs a new constitutional theory.”
“The Court made crystal clear today that a returning citizen’s vote cannot be conditioned on their wealth,” Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center which is representing a plaintiff in the case, said in a written statement in response to Hinkle’s opinion.
“While the decision only applies to the plaintiffs, the writing is on the wall for the Florida Legislature to correct the administrative chaos it created,” she added.
The Florida Supreme Court will ultimately need to specify what the language in Amendment 4 means. They will need to officially determine if “all terms of sentence” applies to fees an ex-felon owes or whether it simply refers to their prison sentence.
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