February 19, 2020 / 8:11 PM / a month ago

U.S. appeals court rules Florida cannot bar felons from voting over unpaid fees

(Reuters) - Florida cannot bar felons from voting over unpaid fines and fees related to their convictions, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday, opening the door to a potential surge in the number of eligible voters in the battleground state ahead of November 2020’s presidential election.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld a lower court’s preliminary ruling, which held that Florida cannot implement a law that requires felons to repay outstanding court costs before they regain the right to vote.

The preliminary injunction prevents the law from taking effect while it is litigated in court. A full trial on the case is scheduled to begin in April.

The state will ask the full appeals court to review the ruling, said Helen Ferre, a spokeswoman for Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

In November 2018, Floridians approved a ballot initiative that restored voting rights to more than 1 million felons who had completed their sentences. Several others states also ban felons from voting, a practice that advocates say disproportionately affects black citizens.

Months later, DeSantis signed a law that required felons to pay back all court-ordered fines and fees imposed at sentencing before regaining the right to vote.

Civil rights groups challenged the law in court, alleging that it amounted to the illegal poll taxes that were put in place after the U.S. Civil War by many states as a barrier to prevent black people from voting.

Voting rights advocates praised the court’s ruling on Wednesday.

“The Eleventh Circuit told the state of Florida what the rest of America already knows. You can’t condition the right to vote on a person’s wealth,” said Myrna Perez of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, one of the groups that challenged the law.

While Wednesday’s ruling only applies to the group of 17 felons represented in the lawsuit, it could potentially influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election if applied to other felons who have not paid outstanding fines and fees.

Florida is a critical battleground state with a history of tight elections. Republican President Donald Trump edged Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a margin of 48.6% to 47.4%.

Reporting by Linda So; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Tom Brown

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