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

Being poor shouldn’t stop Florida felons from voting, judge rules in Amendment 4 case

It’s unclear how state and county officials plan on complying with the judge’s order, however. The “poll tax” issued wasn’t addressed, either.
Protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse in Tallahassee on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, while a federal judge heard arguments for an against the the Legislature's bill implementing Amendment 4. [LAWRENCE MOWER | Lawrence Mower]
Published Oct. 19
Updated Oct. 19

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.

RELATED STORY: Lawmakers made Amendment 4 an ‘administrative nightmare,’ federal judge says

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.

RELATED STORY: Florida’s Amendment 4 muddled by confusing voter forms

“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.

RELATED STORY: Amendment 4 will likely cost ‘millions’ to carry out. Here’s why.

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.

RELATED STORY: Florida’s Amendment 4 legislation is a mess, felons and county officials testify

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Ross Spano serving in the Florida Legislature in 2017. The Dover Republicans 2018 campaign for Congress is now under federal investigation. SCOTT KEELER  |  Times
    The House Ethics Committee revealed the Dover Republican is under federal investigation for possibly violating campaign finance law.
  2. Student activists with the March For Our Lives group, founded after the Feb. 2018 Parkland shooting, hold a banner that promotes their new "peace plan" to prevent gun violence, while demonstrating in the rotunda of the state capitol building in Tallahassee. Emily L. Mahoney | Times
    The 18-year-old student director of March for Our Lives Florida said school shootings are so common they are “not shocking” anymore.
  3. Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School on Oct. 7, 2019, part of a swing around the state to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $47,500. He revealed a related teacher bonus plan on Nov. 14 in Vero Beach. MEGAN REEVES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The new plan would replace the controversial Best and Brightest model that DeSantis had called confusing.
  4. Florida Senator Darryl Rouson on the floor of the Florida Senate. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    His office said he had been considering filing the bill, but a Times/Herald investigation published Wednesday prompted them to move more quickly.
  5. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., questions FBI Director Christopher Wray during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Also pictured is Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., left. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP
    Scott is co-sponsoring a bill to overturn a 1950s Supreme Court ruling.
  6. Tiffany Carr — shown during a 2004 visit to a Hollywood nail salon, where she spoke on domestic violence — was paid $761,560 annual salary as head of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. MIAMI HERALD  |  [Bob Eighmie Miami Herald file photo]
    Former state Sen. Denise Grimsley, a friend of Carr’s, is stepping in as interim president and CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
  7. In this 2017 photo, then-Gov. Rick Scott, left, speaks with then-Florida Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran in Tampa. The two were instrumental in refusing to expand Medicaid in Florida. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
    According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Florida likely suffered the second-highest total of deaths in that time period — 2,776 — attributed to not expanding Medicaid,...
  8. Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg delivers a Veterans Day address at a campaign event, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, in Rochester, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) ELISE AMENDOLA  |  AP
    State rep. Ben Diamond: Mayor Pete is ‘the type of leader that can really bring our country together’
  9. Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and U.S. Rep. Val Demings have prominent roles in the impeachment of President Donald Trump. [AP Photos]
    Pam Bondi, Matt Gaetz, Val Demings and more will factor prominently in the coming weeks. Here’s how.
  10. Career Foreign Service officer George Kent, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, during the first public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP
    Kent was one of the most high-ranking career officials who had knowledge about elements of the alleged White House effort.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement