The ruling by a federal appeals court Wednesday is the latest setback for Florida’s Republican lawmakers in their zeal to undermine the voters’ wishes and the rights of felons reentering society. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta ruled that it was unconstitutional to force felons to pay all their financial obligations before allowing them to register to vote -- a signature hurdle Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature installed after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the felon voting rights measure, Amendment 4, in 2018. The ruling is another embarrassing reminder of the state’s Jim Crow legacy that at least forces the Legislature to consider a fix or to live with its complicity in voter suppression.
The ruling is a bold victory for the nearly two-thirds of Florida voters who supported Amendment 4, even if it applies narrowly for now to 17 felons who have sued the state. The plaintiffs assert they are too poor to comply with restrictions state Republican lawmakers imposed last year, months after Amendment 4 was passed, that require felons to pay back all fines, fees and restitution associated with their case before being allowed to register to vote.
The appeals court affirmed an injunction that U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee imposed in October that bars the state from preventing the 17 felons from registering as they wait for the case to go to trial in April. Still, the ruling was sweeping for the value it placed on voting in America and the right to equal protection, especially in the democratic process. “It is undeniable,” the court found, that requiring payback "punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can.” And while the state has an interest in deterring crime and making victims whole, disenfranchising felons who are genuinely unable to pay “does not further any legitimate state interest,” the court found. “The state cannot draw blood from a stone.”
The circuit court warned that states don’t have “carte blanche” to keep felons from voting, and may not erect a “wealth barrier” to treat a poor felon differently from “the felon with money in the bank.” The court also reminded that the trial judge, in his ruling, left the state ample time and discretion to fix the law on its own. But Republican lawmakers said this month they had no intention of using the ongoing legislative session to revisit the statute. A spokeswoman for DeSantis said the governor disagreed with the court’s decision and would appeal the ruling of the three-judge panel to the full 11th Circuit. Republicans created a discriminatory, untenable hurdle and now they’re running out the clock, keeping thousands of felons from voting in the 2020 elections.
The ruling is good news for the 17 plaintiffs, all of whom are registered and eligible to vote in Florida’s presidential preference primary March 17. But that’s another example of how Amendment 4 is being applied unfairly, thanks to state Republican leaders who lost at the ballot box, lost in federal district court and have now lost again before the appeals court in Atlanta. This is not the outcome Floridians voted for, but it’s what lawmakers get away with when they are not held accountable.
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