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. Michele Arceneaux, former president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a press conference against three proposed toll roads in the Florida Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. LAWRENCE MOWER  |  Lawrence Mower
    The announcement came as the Florida Chamber of Commerce touted the proposed roads.
  2. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Members of the Florida Supreme Court listen to a speech by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Tuesday, March 5, 2019 in the Florida House during a joint session of the Florida Legislature. Left to Right are: Chief Justice Charles T. Canady, Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga, Alan Lawson, Barbara Lagoa, and Robert J. Luck.  SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Fights over abortion, Amendment 4 and new congressional maps are all on a crash course with the high court.
  3. The Florida House Education Committee focuses on early education in its first meeting of the 2020 session. It has met just once more since then. The Florida Channel
    Lawmakers have yet to set an aggressive agenda beyond talk of teacher pay as the 2020 legislative session nears.
  4. Kevin J. Thibault, left, Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation. OCTAVIO JONES   |   TIMES  |  Times
    The report found a lack of oversight and controls by the department.
  5. Agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried speaks at pre-legislative news conference on Tuesday Oct. 29, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants his state to set up a system that will require employers to verify the immigration status of job applicants. But it's unclear if that effort will get any traction among lawmakers, especially since a similar effort failed during the most recent legislative session earlier this year. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) STEVE CANNON  |  AP
    It was the second unusual decision Fried has made to refrain from voting on the Office of Financial Regulation.
  6. George Buck, left, a Republican running for Congress in St. Petersburg, signed a fundraising letter that suggested U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, right, a Somali-born Democrat representing Minnesota, and other Democrats should be executed. Buck is challenging U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg. Times | Associated Press
    House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy removed Buck from the party’s Young Guns program.
  7. FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2018 file photo, people gather around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck as they learn about Amendment 4 and eat free ice cream at Charles Hadley Park in Miami. A federal judge has temporarily set aside a Florida law that barred some felons from voting because of their inability to pay fines and other legal debts. The ruling handed down Friday, Oct. 18, 2019 by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle means thousands of felons who were denied the right to vote will be able to cast ballots unless the state gets a higher court to intervene or if Hinkle later upholds the constitutionality of the state law. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) WILFREDO LEE  |  AP
    The 2018 ballot measure passed by voters allowing most non-violent felons to register to vote would be void if an earlier judicial ruling is upheld, an attorney representing DeSantis’ administration...
  8. In this Aug. 28, 2014, photo, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko makes a statement, at Boryspil airport in Kiev, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mikhail Palinchak)
    Taking a closer look at what the story does — and doesn’t — show about Ukraine’s involvement in 2016.
  9. Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee speaks at an October news conference in Tallahassee. STEVE CANNON  |  Associated Press
    Hackers don’t need to break into elections systems to cause chaos. They could just change the results on every county’s website.
  10. Members of the Florida Supreme Court listen to Gov. Ron DeSantis' speech during a joint session of the Florida Legislature in March. Left to Right are: Chief Justice Charles T. Canady, Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga, Alan Lawson, Barbara Lagoa, and Robert J. Luck. There are now five members of the court after Lagoa and Luck were appointed to the 11th District Court of Appeal by President Trump. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    There are 3.6 million unaffiliated voters who cannot vote in Florida’s closed primary system. Will that change in 2020?
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement