Florida must allow felons to vote if they can’t afford to pay back their court-ordered fees, fines and restitution, a federal judge ruled late Friday in a case challenging the Legislature’s crackdown on Amendment 4.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in his decision that the historic amendment voters passed in 2018 allowing felons to vote does require that they pay back their financial obligations to have their voting rights restored.
But if they’re too poor to pay those costs, the judge ruled, that should not keep them from voting.
The judge granted a preliminary injunction that prevents Florida officials from using the Legislature’s bill to keep the 17 plaintiffs suing the state from voting. But the ramifications of Hinkle’s ruling is expected to affect other felons seeking to vote.
The decision also puts pressure on state and county officials to come up with a way to verify felons are indeed too poor to pay back the costs imposed upon them by the courts.
Civil rights groups cheered the decision, even though Hinkle did not address whether the Legislature’s bill is an unconstitutional “poll tax” ― which is what the laws’ critics have called it.
“For us, it a victory for our clients,” said Nancy Abudu, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We are satisfied that our clients are not going to be removed from the rolls.”
Amendment 4 passed with the support of nearly two thirds of Florida voters. It called for restoring the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”
An attorney for Amendment 4′s advocates said “all terms” included not just parole and probation, but also any financial obligations tacked on during sentencing. That’s how the Legislature interpreted it as well, passing a law defining “all terms of sentence."
But the Legislature’s bill would have prevented hundreds of thousands of felons from voting, simply because they could not afford to pay back what in some cases amounted to millions of dollars in restitution to victims.
Hinkle seems to have split the difference.
The judge agreed that “all terms” included financial obligations. But citing an 11th Circuit opinion signed by eight federal judges, Hinkle said those obligations can’t stop felons from voting.
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“Florida ... 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 wrote.
Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed with the ruling, spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said in a statement.
“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," she said.
Hinkle said the Legislature must come up with a way for poor felons to vote. Ferré said the governor agrees.
"The Governor will consider options put forward on addressing a pathway for those who are indigent and unable to address their outstanding financial obligations,” she said.
Two key GOP lawmakers said this week they were already looking at tweaking last year’s bill to bring it in line with whatever Hinkle and the Florida Supreme Court decides.
But it was unclear Friday how state officials and county elections were going to carry out his order. Those officials don’t have a process in place to determine whether a felon can or cannot afford to pay their court-imposed costs.
Hinkle said the fix could be as simple as amending the state’s voter registration form so that felons could declare themselves indigent.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee said only that her department was reviewing the order and would comply with it. She said the department would "provide guidance to local supervisors of elections,” but did not say what that guidance would be.
Hinkle’s decision does not mean that the wealthy can escape paying restitution to victims and still be able to vote, however.
“If you’re sitting around with $100,000 and you’ve got to pay $5,000, this decision doesn’t apply to those folks,” said Mark Gaber, an attorney for the Campaign Legal Center, which is representing three felons suing county elections supervisors and the state.
During oral arguments last week, Hinkle raised the “poll tax” issue of whether the law violated the 24th Amendment, which states that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”
But the judge punted on that issue because it did apply to the request for an injunction. That will likely be decided in April, when the case is set to go to trial.
The ruling he issued Friday is temporary and will only remain in effect until that trial.