ATLANTA (AP) — 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.
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.
During arguments Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit asked tough questions of both sides, many of them focusing on very technical legal issues. But they seemed skeptical of some of the state's arguments.
Senior Judge Lanier Anderson repeatedly brought up a hypothetical scenario of two people convicted of the same crimes and sentenced to the same punishment, but one can afford to pay the financial obligations and has the right to vote restored while the other can't afford to pay and remains unable to vote.
Pete Patterson, a lawyer representing the state, argued that justice would have been completed in the first case but not in the second.
One of the plaintiffs, Rosemary McCoy, traveled to Atlanta for the hearing. At a news conference afterward, she spoke passionately about regaining her right to vote.
"How long do you have to pay? We served our time. We made a mistake," she said. “It shouldn't be forever.”
State officials predicted “irreparable harm” if the temporary injunction stands and disputed that the financial requirement is a poll tax.
“The criminal restitution, fines, and fees that Plaintiffs have not paid are not any type of tax on the right to vote; they are aspects of punishment for their crimes that they have not fulfilled,” the state argues in its appeal.
As many as 1.6 million felons who have completed their prison sentences regained voting privileges under Amendment 4, which was passed overwhelmingly by Florida voters in November 2018.
In a brief contesting the state's appeal, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is representing some of the felons, said the legislation that stripped voting rights was “one in a long string of examples of Florida’s outright hostility towards voting rights, especially when it comes to people with felony convictions.”
With a stroke of the governor's pen, 80% of the state's felons reenfranchised through Amendment 4 were again ineligible to vote, according to attorneys representing the former inmates.
Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court issued a non-binding advisory opinion agreeing with the Republican governor.
With the Feb. 18 deadline looming to register for the presidential primary, the three-member appellate panel is expected to quickly deliver a ruling.
Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Florida.