Federal judge rules indigent felons must be allowed to vote
May 26, 2020
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CNS) -- As many as one million Floridians with past felony convictions are now eligible to vote after a federal judge ruled the state can't prevent them from registering if they can't afford to pay legal financial obligations related to their case.
When voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018, it was touted as the largest expansion of voting rights in recent history, but the expectations fell short when lawmakers tied the payment of fines, fees and restitution to a felon's ability to register.
"This is a form of wealth based discrimination,” said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Nancy Abudu.
Abudu, who represented plaintiffs in the case, said the 125 page ruling changes everything.
"Essentially the court ruled that Senate Bill 7066 is a modern day poll tax and struck it down for that reason,” said Abudu.
The ruling makes it clear, the state can’t block a felon from voting if they can’t afford to pay their financial obligations.
It’s expected to allow as many as one million felons to register.
“This court's decision is a vindication,” said Abudu.
There will likely be some who still are required to pay, but the burden falls on the state to prove what a felon owes within a 21-day period.
And Clemency lawyer Reggie Garcia noted the ruling also states if you were appointed a public defender or had your financial obligations converted to civil leans you will be automatically allowed to register.
Court fees alone can also not block you from registering.
Time remains to be seen how many will take advantage of it. This I think at least creates more clarity than there's been the last 18 months,” said Garcia.
Groups like the NAACP argued the law requiring payment of financial obligations disproportionately impacted black felons, but in the judge’s decision he ruled the law was not racially motivated.
The state is expected to appeal the ruling.
The question now becomes; will the appellate court in Atlanta allow the lower court's ruling to stay in place while the legal battle plays out?