“Voting is a privilege,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) tweeted last week in response to a Florida Supreme Court decision. The court interpreted part of a 2018 amendment to the Florida constitution as requiring the payment of court fines and fees before people with prior felony convictions can have their right to vote restored.
A state law already required payment, but a federal court blocked that law. An appeals court is now considering the case and heard arguments this week. In the meantime, critics say the DeSantis administration isn’t doing enough to let citizens know who can register to vote.
In November 2018, nearly two-thirds of Floridians voted in favor of Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to nearly 1.5 million people with felony convictions. Before the amendment, Florida was home to nearly one-fourth of the total U.S. population that was disenfranchised because of previous criminal convictions.
The legislature passed a law in 2019 to implement the amendment, and this law required payment of fines, fees, and restitution before voting rights are restored. The amendment was described as a modern-day poll tax. Legislators argued that they were merely implementing the amendment, which restores voting rights after those with felony convictions “complete all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.”
Critics argued that DeSantis and the state Supreme Court have disregarded the intent of the voters who ratified the amendment. A June 2019 poll found that only 45 percent of respondents supported the state law requiring that people pay fines, fees, and restitution before they can vote. Other polls found more support for the law.
Supporters of Amendment 4 argued that the bill was unnecessary, because the amendment is “self-executing.” After the law passed, groups began raising money to help pay off people’s court costs. In some counties, judges and prosecutors have waived old court fees.
Voting rights groups filed four lawsuits challenging the law on behalf of citizens who owe court fees, and the cases were consolidated. In October, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the law’s requirement that people pay court fees, regardless of whether they are financially able to pay them, violates the U.S. Constitution. His ruling said the right to vote “cannot be made to depend on an individual’s financial resources.”
The state appealed Hinkle’s ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on Jan. 28. The three-judge panel posed a hypothetical of two people, one wealthy and one not, who were convicted of the same crime. Only one of them could afford to regain their voting rights. Judge Lanier Anderson called it “punishment on the basis of poverty.”
One of the plaintiffs, Rosemary McCoy, spoke after the argument and accused the state of trying to “take away my voice.” McCoy said that “returning citizens” often face trouble finding a job after being incarcerated, which makes it difficult to pay off fines. Plaintiff Kelvin Jones owes more than $50,000 in fines, fees, and restitution.