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Florida Appeals Court Rules Ex-Felons Must Pay Court Fees Before Voting

Florida Appeals Court Rules Ex-Felons Must Pay Court Fees Before Voting

A ruling from a Florida federal court that found that requiring people with felony convictions to pay court fines and fees before they were eligible to vote was unconstitutional was overturned on Friday, reports the New York Times

The financial stipulation attached to the restoration of voting rights was considered an unconstitutional poll tax by the lower court, however, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta disagreed, reversing the decision in a 6-4 ruling. 

A years-long legal battle:

For a time, the battle over the right of ex-felons to vote in Florida seemed like it might be over. In 2018, voters passed Amendment 4, a ballot measure amending the constitution to restore voting rights for ex-felons, except those that had been convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

At the time, Florida was just one of 3 remaining states that prevented people with felony records from voting. 

Following the passage of Amendment 4, the Republican-controlled Legislature adopted a new restriction barring felons from voting until such a time that they had settled their financial obligations to the court. This is the restriction at the heart of yesterday’s ruling.

A blow to activists:

The decision was viewed as a major setback by civil rights groups that have fought to expand voter rolls in the state of Florida. 

According to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 774,000 felons in Florida owe legal financial obligations that would bar them from voting in the upcoming election. A significant amount of votes in a state known for its close elections. 

“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the A.C.L.U.’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy.”

DeSantis Government says the right decision was made:

A spokesman for Governor Ron DeSantis, Fred Piccolo said that the stipulation of requiring court fees be settled was always part of Amendment 4 and is consistent with the idea of felons completing the entirety of their sentences. 

“All terms of a sentence means all terms,” Mr. Piccolo said. “There are multiple avenues to restore rights, pay off debts and seek financial forgiveness from one’s victims. Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive.”

However, it is worth noting that the state has no centralized system to let felons know how much they might owe, and according to the Appeals Court ruling, states are not required to provide a process for felons to learn whether they are eligible to vote.