(Reuters) - A federal judge in Florida ruled on Friday that a state law requiring felons to pay fines, fees and restitution related to their convictions before being allowed to vote cannot be applied to people unable to make payments.
In his opinion, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee pointed to a U.S. constitutional amendment that prohibits denying citizens the right to vote in federal elections for failure to pay taxes. He also cited a previous federal court ruling that decreed access to voting “cannot be made to depend on an individual’s financial resources.”
“Each of these plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state’s only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay,” Hinkle wrote in his ruling.
To enforce the law properly against felons who can pay their obligations but choose not to, he said the state could create a system for assessing true inability to pay.
Hinkle’s ruling paved the way for a group of felons with outstanding monetary obligations to regain access to the ballot box. They were represented in their voting rights case by civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
If applied to more felons in similar positions, the judge’s ruling has the potential to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Florida is a critical battleground state with a history of tight elections.
In November 2018, nearly 65% of Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution, “Amendment 4”, restoring voting rights to more than 1 million felons. The change overturned Florida’s 150-year-old ban on voting by felons, a Jim Crow era law that disproportionately affected black voters, and was hailed as one of the largest enfranchisements in modern U.S. history.
Months later, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature passed the state law at issue in Friday’s ruling, requiring felons to pay back all court costs and monetary obligations imposed at sentencing before regaining their right to vote.
In hearings before Hinkle on Oct. 7 and 8, the state contended it was merely implementing the constitutional amendment as it was written on the ballot.
Felons and election officials testified at the hearings they had no clear way of verifying amounts owed or whether those payments have been settled. In the end, Hinkle said the law created an “administrative nightmare.”
Voting rights advocates cheered Hinkle’s opinion on Friday.
“This ruling recognizes the gravity of elected officials trying to circumvent Amendment 4 to create voting roadblocks,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Florida’s deadline to register for the 2020 presidential primary is Feb. 18.
Reporting by Linda So and Julia Harte; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tom Brown