Federal judge demolishes Florida law barring felons from voting — rules it a 'poll tax'

Federal judge demolishes Florida law barring felons from voting — rules it a 'poll tax'
Governor Ron DeSantis Screengrab

In a Sunday order, a federal judge has struck down in large part the Florida state law passed by Republicans that denied felons the restoration of their voting rights if they had not paid all fines, fees and other costs associated with their court appearances. The requirement constituted a poll tax, ruled U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, and therefore violated the 24th Amendment prohibitions on such.

The details of the order (which can be found here) amount to a substantive, but not total, victory for opponents of the Florida law.

Hinkle based much of the ruling on the “staggering inability” of the Florida government to administer their own requirements, noting in blistering language that due to inadequate records it had proved impossible for both the state and outside researchers to even identify the precise amounts most of the plaintiffs and other state felons were supposed to pay before their voting rights were restored; it also could not identify which penalties were assessed for felonies, for misdemeanors, or in absence of a guilty verdict at all.

The order also especially notes the (related) inability of the state to promptly (or ever) respond to would-be voters asking for state "advisory opinions" on whether they are allowed to register, with the state threatening felons with prosecution if they register to vote despite being ineligible due to past fees and fines—an threat that has left many state felons reluctant to pursue their voting rights—while simultaneously itself being unable to find that information in any credible, definitive form.

“In sum, 18 months after adopting the pay-to-vote system, the State still does not know which obligations it applies to. And if the State does not know, a voter does not know. The takeaway: determining the amount of a felon’s [financial obligations] is sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes impossible.”

The order thus requires Florida to specify the exact amount of fines and restitution a past felon is alleged to owe—which is, as noted, a near-impossibility for the state government. If the individual is able to make those payments, the ruling determines it is constitutional to require it. If the individual is unable to pay, however, the state is not allowed to bar them from the rolls, as it would constitute an unconstitutional tax. If the state cannot determine exactly what amounts are allegedly due, it is unconstitutional for the state to require they be paid.

The primary effect of the order is a requirement that the state respond with the information needed to determine eligibility promptly. The order requires that if the state does not respond to an individual's request for an official "advisory opinion" on whether they are eligible to register within 21 days, the state must allow that individual to register to vote. It also bars the state from prosecuting anyone who either relies on the state's own "advisory opinions" on whether or not they are eligible to vote or who has waited the required 21 days without receiving an answer.

In practical effect, this will restore the right to vote—again—to most ex-felons in the state. The state has been stymied in complying with the most basic would-be requirement of the legislature's demand that "fees and fines" be paid: the ability to determine what fees and fines are actually owed. It has similarly stonewalled registrations by putting onerous new requirements on election supervisors without giving them the resources to abide by them; the 21 day deadline will do much to remove the state's ability to strangle registrations simply by refusing to put in place adequate means to enact its own demands.

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