The right to vote for 1.4 million felons in Florida got a boost Friday when a federal judge ruled that the state can’t prevent felons from voting, even if they can’t afford to pay court-ordered fines and fees.
This latest chapter in the ongoing battle between voting rights activists and the Republican-led state legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis is a win for those who want their voting rights restored.
“We’re thrilled that the judge ruled in our favor and said voting should not be pay-to-play,” said Patti Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Last November, Floridians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to most felons once they completed their sentences, making it the largest expansion of voting rights in the country in 50 years. Thousands of felons registered after the amendment took effect on Jan. 8.
But in June, DeSantis signed a law that said only felons who had paid all fines, fees and restitution could register to vote. Voting advocates estimate that this would impact between 500,000 to 800,000 felons.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the state can ask that the fines be paid, but it can’t bar anybody from voting if they can’t afford to pay.
He noted that while the Florida Supreme Court will hear a different lawsuit on the issue next month, time is running out for felons who want to vote. Local elections will take place in November around the state, and the presidential primary is in March.
“When an eligible citizen misses an opportunity to vote, the opportunity is gone forever; the vote cannot later be cast,” Hinkle wrote. “So when the state wrongly prevents an eligible citizen from voting, the harm is irreparable.”
Hinkle’s ruling technically applies to only 17 people named in the lawsuit, which was brought by the NAACP and several other groups. But experts expect it to be applied more broadly to other felons in the state.
Tampa pastor Clifford Tyson was one of the 17 felons cited in Hinkle’s opinion. He said he has tried several times to see if he owes any fines from decades-old convictions for armed robbery and theft. He registered to vote on Jan. 8, and has voted in two local elections since then.
“I was so excited to vote for the first time in 42 years,” Tyson said. “I brought my 5-year-old grandson with me, he wanted to watch. When they handed me the ballot and directed me to the voting book, I began to cry. Tears kept on flowing.”
But after DeSantis signed the law limiting which felons could register, Tyson said he is afraid to vote now.
“After that bill came out, I have not attempted to vote. I’ve been afraid to vote. I don’t want to break the law,” Tyson said.
He said he can’t find out how much money in court fines he owes, if any.
“I tried to find out what I owed. I went to the clerk of court four times,” Tyson, 63, said. “I still couldn’t find everything I needed.”
“Today’s ruling affirms the governor’s consistent position that convicted felons should be held responsible for paying applicable restitution, fees and fines while also recognizing the need to provide an avenue for individuals unable to pay back their debts as a result of true financial hardship,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre said in a statement.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has raised nearly $1 million in donations to help felons pay outstanding fines, according to Neil Volz, the group’s political director. He said a statewide bus tour next month will offer “returning citizens” help figuring out fines and paying them.
“This is a step forward,” Volz said about Hinkle’s decision. “We’re going to keep moving forward and registering people to vote.”
Volz, a former lobbyist who was convicted of a felony conspiracy count in the corruption scandal of D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff in 2007, said he owed $3,000 in fines, and paid them off “years ago.”
Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said his drug conviction more than 20 years ago didn’t carry any fines. Meade registered to vote on Jan. 8. He agreed that Hinkle’s decision shows progress, but “I think that maybe we’re treading a little water” with the state’s rules about paying fines before registering to vote.
“It gets frustrating, because of the heightened sense of uncertainty,” Meade said. “We run across a lot of people who are nervous, they’re confused.”
Meade and others hope that Hinkle’s ruling will cause the state to streamline the process.
“The court made clear that wealth cannot be a barrier to right restoration,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. “And he said the state has to come up with an efficient process so that everyone who cannot pay, can establish that. He was pretty clear that the legislature created a mess.”