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Felons in Florida can register to vote even if they have yet to pay court fees or fines, according to a ruling by a Bill Clinton-appointed federal judge.
The decision, if it holds up, could have significant implications for the Trump campaign’s ability to win this crucial swing state in the November 2020 presidential contest.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle concluded in a 125-page opinion in Kelvin Jones et al. v. Ron DeSantis that the so-called pay-to-vote requirement, as he described it, is equivalent to a poll tax which is rendered unconstitutional by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The judge also insisted that the state has no consistent mechanism in place to determined precisely how much a particular felon owed in all cases.
In a limited win for the state, Judge Hinkle also concluded that “the requirement to pay a determinable amount of fines and restitution as a condition of voting is not unconstitutional as applied to those who are able to pay.”
The likelihood is, however, that many felons will claim financial hardship even if the state can determine precisely how much they owe. “The requirement to pay, as a condition of voting, amounts that are unknown and cannot be determined with diligence is unconstitutional,” the judge claimed.
In 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4 that restored voting rights to most felons who had served their prison sentence and as well as completing any post-release probation or parole. An estimated 1.6 million felons could regain the ability to vote under the amendment to Florida’s constitution but reportedly only about 50,000 have registered so far.
Republicans in the state legislature subsequently enacted a law requiring those felons seeking to regain their voting rights to first pay any court-ordered fines, fees, or restitution (the latter which is generally financial compensation to crime victims or the families of victims) arising from their criminal case.
Several liberal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union case challenged the requirement.
As BizPacReview previously explained, after DeSantis signed the bill, these activist organizations predictably sued, as it seems they’d prefer that felons be automatically re-granted their voting rights, despite the bills they owe to society.
In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Florida, also determined that the requirement for those previously incarcerated to first pay what they owe was an unfair poll tax.
The Ron DeSantis administration had previously lodged an appeal with the 11th Circuit and is likely to purse an appeal of Hinkle’s ruling. All this legal wrangling may ultimately wind up on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court for a final determination.
According to CBS News, “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.”
As the Joe Biden “you ain’t black” controversy has proved, however, constituencies no longer vote in a monolithic fashion.
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