Court weighs Florida law on felon voting rights

Bobcaina Calvan and Kate Brumback

Atlanta – Lawyers for the electoral battleground state of Florida asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday to set aside a ruling that allowed some felons to regain access to the ballot box despite owing fines and other legal debts.

Florida Republicans, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, argue that only felons who have completed all conditions of their sentences should be allowed to vote. He and GOP lawmakers say that to regain the right to vote, felons must not only serve their time but also pay all fines and other legal financial obligations.

Ron DeSantis

The case before the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could be consequential because of the razor-thin margins that sometimes decide election contests in Florida – a perennial battleground state.

“This Court’s answer to that question will have far reaching effects, as it will determine whether the State must comply with the court’s injunction in upcoming elections of national, state, and local significance in 2020,” Florida’s brief says.

At issue before the appellate court is Amendment 4, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2018, allowing felons to regain the right to vote ahead of the March 17 primaries and November’s crucial presidential balloting.

In response to Amendment 4, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill – later signed by DeSantis – stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other financial obligations to complete their sentences.

Voting rights groups immediately sued and asked for a temporary injunction that would let felons continue registering to vote and cast ballots until the merits of the law can be fully adjudicated. A full trial is expected to begin in April.

In October, a federal judge in Tallahassee called Florida’s voter registration process an “administrative nightmare” and suspended the law for plaintiffs who could not afford to pay their outstanding debts. He agreed with voter rights advocates that imposing the debt requirement amounted to a poll tax.

Although that ruling directly benefited only the 17 plaintiffs in the cases, the case could have broad implications for thousands of other felons.

With the Feb. 18 deadline looming to register for the presidential primary, the appellate panel is expected to quickly deliver a ruling.