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Federal Judge Rules Florida Can’t Make Poor Felons Pay to Vote

Federal Judge Rules Florida Can’t Make Poor Felons Pay to Vote

A federal judge ruled that Florida’s policy barring felons from voting unless they pay back court fines and fees was unconstitutional, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system is effectively a poll tax.

"This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay,” Hinkle wrote.

“The requirement to pay fees and costs as a condition of voting is unconstitutional because they are, in substance, taxes,” he added.

The state can require felons to pay fines and restitution, Hinkle ruled, but it was unconstitutional for the state to require felons to pay amounts that are unknown.

“Indeed, there may be nobody to pay, even if a felon is willing and able to make a payment. Insisting on payment of amounts long forgotten seems an especially poor basis for denying the franchise,” he wrote. “The requirement to pay, as a condition of voting, amounts that are unknown and cannot be determined with diligence is unconstitutional.”

The ruling is expected to be appealed by the state but rights groups praised the decision.

“This ruling means hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to rejoin the electorate and participate in upcoming elections,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “This is a tremendous victory for voting rights.”

Two large groups exempt from paying:

Hinkle’s order will require the state to create a new process for determining whether felons are eligible to vote.

The order exempted those who were appointed an attorney because they could not afford one and those who had financial obligations converted to court liens from having to pay to register to vote.

The state will have to create a new process to determine whether felons are too poor to pay their obligations.

“In most cases, the Division (of Elections) will need to do nothing more on (legal financial obligations) than review the judgment to confirm there is no fine or restitution,” Hinkle wrote. “In the remaining cases — the cases with a fine or restitution — the overwhelming majority of felons will be unable to pay.”

Many don’t know how much they owe:

Hinkle took issue with the state being unable to determine how much felons owe even as the state blocks them from voting.

“Determining how much a person convicted of a felony in Florida was ordered to pay as part of a criminal sentence is not as easy as one might expect,” Hinkle wrote. “It is sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes impossible. Determining how much a person has paid, especially given (Florida’s) byzantine approach to calculating that amount, is more difficult, but this, too, is sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes impossible.”

“Even with a team of attorneys and unlimited time, the State has been unable to show how much each plaintiff must pay to vote under the State’s view of the law,” he added.