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U.S. Supreme Court leaves in place curbs on voting by ex-felons in Florida

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rebuffed a bid by voting rights advocates to block a Republican-backed Florida law mandating that people with past felony convictions pay court fines and fees before being able to register to vote.

The conservative-majority high court left in place a July 1 decision by the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put on hold a judge’s earlier ruling declaring the law an “unconstitutional pay-to-vote system” imposed on citizens who genuinely cannot pay - or even know if anything is owed.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle’s ruling had cleared the way for potentially hundreds of thousands of Floridians to register to vote in the key election battleground state ahead of the Nov. 3 election in which President Donald Trump is seeking a second term in office.

Liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissented from Thursday’s decision. Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the Supreme Court’s action prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from casting ballots “simply because they are poor,” adding that the decision “continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement.”

The law was signed last year by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally. Voting rights advocates and Democrats have accused Republicans in a number of states of passing laws aimed at suppressing the voting ability of groups who tend to support Democratic candidates.

The 11th Circuit decision effectively halted the voter registration of former felons who cannot afford to pay the fines and fees as required under the law to have their voting rights restored.

A group of Floridians and voting rights organizations sued DeSantis, arguing the law amounted to an illegal poll tax in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

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Opponents argued the law goes against the wishes of Florida voters who approved an amendment to the state’s constitution in 2018 to grant voting rights to felons who served their time and were not convicted of murder or sex crimes.

The 11th Circuit put a temporary hold on Hinkle’s decision while it considered an appeal by DeSantis. That action put the rights of these former felons in limbo, with the court’s ruling potentially months away. Florida’s deadline to register to vote in the presidential election is Oct. 5.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said in a statement after the Supreme Court’s action, “Florida Republicans have a shamefully transparent electoral strategy: voter suppression.”

(This story corrects in penultimate paragraph, corrects to say that the court’s ruling is potentially months away and that Florida deadline to register to vote in the presidential election is Oct. 5; not that it put the rights in limbo for months and well past the deadline to register to vote)

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham

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