Advertisement
  1. Florida Politics
  2. /
  3. The Buzz

Timing of Florida’s felons voting suit up for debate as 2020 election looms

Plaintiffs say they need more time to gather evidence in their challenge to a state law requiring people convicted of felonies to pay fees and fines.
Early voting in Miami. [MIAMI HERALD]
Published Aug. 14
Updated Aug. 14

Lawyers representing opposite sides in a federal lawsuit about felons’ voting rights can’t agree on how quickly a judge should decide the issue, potentially affecting whether hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to participate in next year’s presidential primary elections.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who want the lawsuit dismissed, are asking U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to hold a trial in the case in November. But plaintiffs say they need more time to gather evidence in their challenge to a state law requiring people convicted of felonies to pay legal financial obligations before they can register to vote.

The law, passed during this spring’s legislative session, is aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment that automatically restores voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentences.

More than 71 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment in November, and felons affected by the measure began registering to vote as soon as the amendment went into effect in early January.

The lawsuit was filed after the Republican-dominated Legislature tucked into a sweeping election law a provision requiring felons to pay all court-ordered “legal financial obligations” — including fines, fees and restitution — before voting rights can be restored. The law, signed by DeSantis, went into effect on July 1.

Voting-rights groups and civil-rights advocates allege the linkage between finances and voting rights amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax,” a vestige of Jim Crow-era policies aimed at preventing blacks from voting.

The state, however, maintains the state law carries out the language of the amendment and argues that the statute is more permissive than what is now part of the state Constitution.

On Monday, lawyers on both sides in the case filed a joint brief about how it should proceed.

Plaintiffs proposed having a trial in April, more than a month after Florida’s presidential primary elections. That also would be about two months after the voter-registration deadline for the presidential primaries.

“Unfortunately, it is not possible to allow for full development of a trial record, appeal, and unhurried implementation prior to the presidential preference election book closing on Feb. 18,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote.

The plaintiffs asked the court to schedule a hearing this October on their request for a preliminary injunction to block the law from going into effect.

An April trial would give plenty of time for Hinkle to rule on the merits of the lawsuit, for appeals to take place and “for unhurried implementation prior to the November 2020 presidential and general elections,” the plaintiffs argued.

But the state’s lawyers argued that Hinkle doesn’t need to wait that long.

“State defendants assert that this case will be ready for trial in November,” the lawyers wrote, adding “the final trial on the merits should be held in conjunction with any preliminary injunction hearing.”

Implementation of the amendment granting felons’ voting rights was one of the most-acrimonious topics during the legislative session that ended in May, and the federal court battle is shaping up to be equally, if not more, contentious.

DeSantis’ lawyers have asked Hinkle to dismiss the case, arguing that it belongs in state, and not federal, court.

On Friday, the governor asked the Florida Supreme Court for guidance on “whether ‘completion of all terms of sentence’ … includes the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations — namely fees, fines and restitution ordered by the court as part of a felony sentence that would otherwise render a convicted felon ineligible to vote.”

Estimates about the number of Floridians who could be impacted by the amendment vary in a state where razor-thin margins in major elections are common. But backers of the measure estimate that it affects more than 1 million potential voters who lost their voting rights after being convicted of felonies.

The amendment granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

The interpretation of “all terms of their sentence” spawned some of the session’s most-intense partisan divides as lawmakers struggled to reach consensus about what it meant. The law, signed by DeSantis in late June, requires “financial obligations” ordered by courts as part of sentencing — including fines, fees and restitution --- to be paid in full for voting rights to be restored.

On Monday, state Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Riviera Beach, filed a measure that would remove the requirement that fines and fees be repaid as a prerequisite for voting rights. The proposal (HB 6007), filed for the 2020 legislative session, would keep the requirement that restitution be paid.

“Unfortunately, the demographic breakdown of those who lose their voting rights shows obvious racial disparities and income inequality,” Jacquet, who is black, said in a prepared statement announcing the filing of the legislation. “Intentional or otherwise, the consequence of this provision is an indirect measure used to exclude people of a particular race or socioeconomic status, thereby disenfranchising people.”

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel appears before the Senate Rules Committee concerning his dismissal by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) STEVE CANNON  |  AP
    After an emotional four hours of debate, the same Senate that 20 months ago rejected calls for an assault weapons ban after the Parkland shooting, voted 25-15 largely along party lines to remove Scott...
  2. Tampa Bay Times Tampa Bay Times
    Republican Party of Florida chairman Joe Gruters and Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo will join Times Political Editor Steve Contorno for a Nov. 6 event.
  3. Lev Parnas, center, leaves federal court following his arraignment, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 in New York. Parnas and Igor Fruman are charged with conspiracy to make illegal contributions to political committees supporting President Donald Trump and other Republicans. Prosecutors say the pair wanted to use the donations to lobby U.S. politicians to oust the country's ambassador to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) MARK LENNIHAN  |  AP
    Appearing with their attorneys, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman said they will fight allegations in a grand jury indictment that they used a shell company to secretly steer hundreds of thousands of dollars...
  4. -
    A report presented to the Senate panel showed a variety of causes of deaths, including inmate-on-inmate assaults and suicides.
  5. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., attends an executive session of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) SUSAN WALSH  |  AP
    The senator drew backlash for the claim on ABC’s “The View.”
  6. Former sheriff of Broward County Scott Israel, right, and his attorney Benedict Kuehne wait their turn to speak to the Senate Rules Committee concerning his dismissal by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) STEVE CANNON  |  AP
    The vote is expected to be seen as a political victory for the governor and validation for the families of the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
  7. Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, speaks on the floor of the Florida House. Grall is sponsoring a bill for the second time that would require parental consent for minors to obtain an abortion.
    The legislation would enact a consent requirement for minors.
  8. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. "OCTAVIO JONES   |   TIMES"  |  Times
    He could use his position on the Board of Clemency to allow nonviolent felons to serve on juries and run for office.
  9. Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, says the Legislative Black Caucus will prioritize both public education and school choice during the 2020 Florida session. The caucus held a news conference on Oct. 22, 2019. The Florida Channel
    The caucus announced its 2020 goals for justice, housing and other key issues, as well, with members saying they will stick together to pursue them.
  10. CHRIS URSO   |   Times
Florida Governor elect Ron DeSantis, right, thanks supporters including Ukrainian businessman Lev Parnas, left, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Orlando. DeSantis defeated Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum. CHRIS URSO  |  Times
    This new fact indicates an attempt to directly influence DeSantis’ early policy agenda as he took office, one that DeSantis said was unsuccessful.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement