TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking a federal appeals court to put on hold a ruling that would pave the way for hundreds of thousands of Floridians who have been convicted of felonies to register and vote in November, arguing the decision could “corrupt” the integrity of the state’s elections.
The Republican governor this week requested that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issue a stay as his administration fights a lower-court ruling about a 2019 state law aimed at carrying out a constitutional amendment that restored the voting rights of felons “who have completed all terms of their sentences, including parole and probation.”
Voting-rights and civil-rights groups filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of part of the 2019 law that requires felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines, costs and restitution — associated with their convictions to be eligible to vote.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in October that the state cannot deny the right to vote to someone who is “genuinely unable to pay.” He cemented the ruling last month and laid out a process for the state to use in determining felons’ voting eligibility. He also issued a ruling Sunday that rejected a stay sought by DeSantis.
In a 35-page brief filed Wednesday, the state’s lawyers argued that the 2019 law should not be overturned.
“Here, Florida’s interest in punishing a felony is not satisfied until all the terms of a felon’s sentence are completed in full,” the brief said. “This is true whether the uncompleted term at issue is a period of incarceration or a fine and regardless of why the term remains unsatisfied.”
Hinkle’s ruling in May established a way for the vast majority of the felons who have been banned from participating in elections to register and vote, based on their financial status at the time they were convicted and their voting rights were stripped.
Following that ruling, DeSantis made a rare move of asking the Atlanta-based appeals court to hold an “en banc,” or full court, hearing in the state’s challenge to Hinkle’s order. Three-judge panels almost always consider initial appeals.
The state also asked the appellate court to fast track the case, which the court agreed to do. The 11th Circuit has not responded to the request for an en banc hearing.
Lawyers for DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee in the Wednesday brief argued that the state law properly carried out the intent of what appeared as “Amendment 4” on Florida’s November 2018 ballot.
Hinkle’s ruling “thwarts the people’s wishes, as it allows individuals to register and vote who are not eligible under Amendment 4,” the state’s lawyers wrote.
The federal judge’s decision would allow “hundreds of thousands of felons who are ineligible to vote under Florida law” to cast ballots, they argued.
“Indeed, if the district court’s order is in place during the elections, but is later vacated, the integrity of the elections will have been corrupted and their results possibly opened to challenge,” DeSantis’ lawyers said.
Hinkle in October issued a preliminary injunction in the dispute. A three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld that injunction in February, and the appeals court declined an en banc hearing at that stage of the case.
The DeSantis administration on Wednesday bashed the three-judge panel’s decision, saying its analysis was based on a faulty premise that conditioning felons’ voting rights on payment of financial obligations is wealth-based discrimination.
“But a felon loses his right to vote as punishment for committing a felony, not for being unable to satisfy the financial terms imposed as part of that sentence,” the state’s lawyers wrote. “The financial terms, like any other terms of a sentence, are simply part of the debt that the felon owes to society, as measured by the judge and jury who imposed it on behalf of society.”
DeSantis’ lawyers accused the three-judge panel of applying the wrong type of analysis, known as “heightened scrutiny,” to arrive at the Feb. 19 decision.
The panel should have relied instead on a “rational-basis review” used by other courts when weighing similar matters, lawyers for the state wrote.
It is “entirely rational for the people of Florida to insist that felons repay their debt to society in full before they can rejoin the electorate, and that is true even for those unable to pay and even if the majority of felons are unable to pay,” they argued.
In a sharply worded order issued Sunday, Hinkle refused to grant the state’s request to block his order from going into effect while the appeal is pending.
“No matter how many times the state asserts the contrary, a statute that punishes some individuals more harshly based only on wealth, or that irrationally conditions eligibility to vote on wealth, is unconstitutional,” wrote Hinkle, who has repeatedly branded the state law as a “pay-to-vote” system.