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The courts must protect felon voting rights in Florida | Editorial

The state couldn’t care less about honoring the voters’ intent on Amendment 4

Let’s stop pretending Florida’s Republican governor and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature have any intention of honoring the intent of voters who approved Amendment 4. A top state elections chief made crystal clear during a federal trial this week that the state has no plan or even a clue about how it would automatically grant felons the voting rights as the 2018 constitutional amendment requires. Fortunately, the presiding judge sent his own signals as the trial concluded Wednesday that the court would uphold the law and the voters’ will.

The director of Florida’s Division of Elections, Maria Matthews, told a federal trial judge Tuesday that the state has still not settled on a process for allowing hundreds of thousands of felons to vote. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in October that the state cannot deny voting rights to felons who genuinely could not pay outstanding legal obligations tied to their case, as required by state law. That requirement was approved by the Legislature in 2019 and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, only months after more than 64 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that automatically restores voting rights to most felons “who have completed all terms of their sentences." The law was a back-door way to perpetuate discrimination and to neuter a referendum these lawmakers opposed, and it was a shameless postscript to the state’s shameful history.

Lawmakers have had the opportunity to repeal a law that puts a cash register in front of the voting booth. State officials have had the opportunity to design a process to determine what - if anything - felons owed. And Florida leaders have had months to process if not accept the guidance of the federal courts, which have consistently held that voting rights cannot be conditioned on a felon’s ability to pay.

Matthews said her office was “crystalizing” the process for identifying felons with unpaid legal obligations, but noted: “We don’t have anything final at this point.” A proposal for felons to seek an advisory opinion from the Department of State is insulting for its embrace of bureaucratic slog. The state is also considering a creating a form allowing felons to declare themselves indigent, a discussion that has carried on for far too long.

Hinkle was right to signal his frustration during a pretrial hearing in March. "If the state is not going to fix it, I will,” he snapped. The state has ignored clear direction from the courts, including the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Hinkle’s ruling and denied the governor’s request for a rehearing. Hinkle sent another signal last month, ruling that his decision in the trial would apply to all felons in Florida - not merely the 17 who sued the state - clearing the way to provide overdue justice to 430,000 felons or more. And as the trial ended Wednesday, Hinkle suggested he would rule at least in part against the state and issue an injunction directing the next steps for Florida in advance of November’s presidential election.

The voters’ intent in passing Amendment 4 must be upheld. The state has wasted its many opportunities and challenged the authority of the federal courts with bad faith and empty promises. The only question now is how much longer felons must wait for justice already delayed and for voters to see their clear intent followed. Hinkle should bring this travesty to a close with a clear, simple process for registering eligible felons to vote.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news