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Voting Rights Roundup: Court axes Florida GOP's poll tax, restoring voting rights to roughly 775,000

Image via Gage Skidmore.

LEADING OFF

 Florida: In a historic victory against Republican voter suppression, a federal district court struck down a law that Republicans passed to impose a modern-day poll tax that disenfranchised would-be voters who had served their felony sentences but still owed court fines and fees. The judge ruled that the law established a "tax by any other name" in violation of the 24th Amendment's ban on disenfranchising voters "by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax." The court's decision means that hundreds of thousands of disproportionately Black voters will regain the right to vote.


Republicans passed their law last year after voters amended Florida's constitution in 2018 to end lifetime voter disenfranchisement for up to 1.4 million people who had served out sentences for all but the most serious crimes. An expert witness for the plaintiffs estimated that 775,000 citizens would be unable to pay the poll tax, in large part because Florida levies onerous fines to fund its court system. The court noted, for instance, that one county charges a minimum of $668 for a public defender—and $548 even for defendants who forgo one. Furthermore, 43% of the disenfranchised are Black, roughly three times the African American share of the state's overall adult population.

Before voters passed the 2018 initiative, Florida disenfranchised 1 in 10 adults, the highest proportion of any state, including 1 in 5 Black adults—five times the rate of white adults in Florida. This racial discrimination was no accident, either, since Florida’s lifetime voting ban was a product of the Jim Crow era.

In striking down the poll tax, the court's ruling means that it's unconstitutional to condition voting rights upon the payment of court fees and costs. While requiring the payment of fines and restitution to victims can be constitutional in certain instances, the court said, it's unconstitutional when applied to citizens who are genuinely unable to pay the costs or who owe an amount that cannot be determined.

Indeed, the state effectively makes it impossible for many voters to even find out the exact amount owed because Florida lacks adequate records. In light of that situation, the court ordered Florida officials to tell all of the affected citizens whether they're eligible to vote. Would-be voters can request an advisory opinion on their eligibility from the secretary of state that must detail the exact amount owed, and they must be allowed to register in the meantime if they don't hear back within 21 days. Voters also won't face perjury charges for registering through this process, something that had chilled registration drives before the court ruling.

Florida Republicans have vowed to appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but they may not have much success: The 11th Circuit refused to reverse the lower court's previous ruling that had blocked the poll tax from being enforced on the particular plaintiffs party to the case, a decision that relied on reasoning similar to this latest one. However, it appears likely that this litigation will ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly since 10 states have similar financial requirements and 30 states impose such requirements in at least some cases.

Furthermore, Florida's conservative-dominated state Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion in January holding that the constitutional amendment does in fact require the payment of fines and fees, even though its text makes no mention of them. While that ruling is not binding, it could be a signal that the state court could strike down the entire amendment if the federal court ruling limiting the new requirement survives.

BALLOT MEASURES

 Missouri: Activists hoping to expand voting access in Missouri have failed to turn in enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The comprehensive proposal would have enacted automatic voter registration; established early voting; removed the excuse requirement to vote absentee; allowed voters to permanently sign up to automatically receive a mail ballot in every election; enshrined the right to cast a provisional ballot even if voting at the wrong polling place; let 16- and 17-year-olds "pre-register" to vote so that they're automatically added to the voter rolls when they turn 18; required routine audits of election results; and extended the time allowed for military votes to be received and counted.

REDISTRICTING

 California: The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a case brought by conservatives attacking the constitutionality of the California Voting Rights Act, which makes it easier for plaintiffs to challenge the use of at-large elections in municipal races. The law has provided an easier path for cities to shift to district-based elections, which give Latinos and Asian-Americans a better chance of winning seats.

The suit unsuccessfully argued that the law required illegal gerrymandering based on race. It was supported by infamous voting rights opponent Ed Blum, who was behind the case that saw the Supreme Court strike down a critical part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and has been a leading foe of affirmative action.

 Missouri: Supporters of redistricting reform have filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the ballot summary language of a constitutional amendment Republicans recently put on the ballot to gut a 2018 constitutional amendment that voters passed to make legislative redistricting fairer.

Activists argue it's misleading because the repeal amendment elides the fact that the position of nonpartisan demographer would be eliminated, as well as the fact that the original amendment's requirements that districts be drawn with partisan fairness and competitiveness in mind would become, as the GOP intends, the "least important factors." The plaintiffs want the court to order Republicans to rewrite the summary or accept an alternative of their own.

FELONY DISENFRANCHISEMENT

 Alabama: The Campaign Legal Center has filed a federal lawsuit challenging Alabama's de facto poll tax that prevents voters convicted of a disqualifying felony from regaining their voting rights following the completion of their sentences if they owe court fines or fees. The plaintiffs want the court to block the repayment requirement for citizens who are unable to pay their court costs, noting that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to overturn a ruling in a similar case where the CLC prevailed in Florida.

The plaintiffs estimate that of the 136,000 Alabamians convicted of a disqualifying felony between 1993 and 2019, up to 100,000 still owe court costs and therefore cannot vote. They conclude that a majority owe $1,500 or more and at least 20,000 people owe in excess of $10,000.

Before Alabama's Republican-led state government passed a law reforming felony disenfranchisement in 2017, a Sentencing Project report found that Alabama disenfranchised Black voters at three times the rate of white voters. A significant racial disparity likely remains today even after the 2017 reforms made it clearer and less arbitrary which crimes counted as disqualifying felonies.

VOTER SUPPRESSION

 Montana: A state court has temporarily blocked a statute that restricts who can turn in another person's completed mail ballot, siding with the Native American activists who sued in March by arguing that the law violated the state constitution.

The law in question was approved by voters in 2018 after Republican legislators placed it on the ballot to circumvent a veto from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. It makes it a felony to turn in someone else's absentee ballot unless the person doing so is the voter's family member, caregiver, household member, or acquaintance, and even those individuals may turn in no more than six others' absentee ballots. Only postal workers and election officials are fully exempt.

Montana is one of a few states that lets voters opt into permanently receiving an absentee mail ballot in all elections, which is intended to make it easier to vote. In addition, most voters already voted by mail even before the pandemic prompted the state to mail every voter a ballot for the June 2 primary. However, because many Native Americans living on remote reservations lack reliable postal service and access to transportation, many ask others who do not face such barriers to turn in their ballots for them.

 New Hampshire: The ACLU and the New Hampshire Democratic Party have withdrawn a federal lawsuit challenging a voter residency restriction passed by Republicans in 2018 following a clarification from the state Supreme Court that made it unlikely for the plaintiffs to succeed in federal court.

As we’ve previously detailed, the law in question requires New Hampshire voters to establish legal "residency" in the state and not just simply make it their "domicile," or the place where they live day to day. Becoming a resident under the new legal definition, however, requires actions like registering a car in-state and obtaining an in-state driver's license. Effectively, this new requirement serves as a poll tax on Democratic-leaning college students from other states, who are less likely to go to the expense and trouble of becoming legal residents even if they live in New Hampshire full-time but don't intend to remain there indefinitely.

The plaintiffs chose to abandon their suit after the state Supreme Court told the federal court that the new law meant that there was no longer any statutory difference between being a resident and being domiciled within the state. The state court said that anyone who lives in the state for more than six months a year is deemed a legal resident and is required to switch out-of-state driver's licenses and car registrations, if they have them, to in-state versions.

While the Supreme Court's ruling means that obtaining resident status—and therefore the right to vote—is automatic, it's possible that voters who cast a ballot and fail to exchange their out-of-state documentation could face penalties, even though their votes cannot be challenged. The plaintiffs had unsuccessfully challenged this possibility as potentially risking voter intimidation.

ELECTION CHANGES

 Arkansas:  A federal district court has issued a preliminary injunction that temporarily eases the task of gathering signatures that reformers need in order to put an initiative on the November ballot to create an independent redistricting commission. The court stopped short of allowing fully electronic signatures but instead waived a requirement that signatures be witnessed or notarized, meaning that voters will be able to sign paper forms at home and mail them in.

However, the court refused to extend the July 3 deadline to submit signatures, nor did it reduce the number required, which is about 89,000. Nevertheless, initiative supporters have said they are confident that they will be able to get onto the ballot after this ruling. Republican officials have not indicated whether they will appeal while the case proceeds on the merits.

 Colorado: Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has issued an executive order to temporarily make it easier to gather voter signatures needed for initiatives to qualify for the November ballot by waiving a requirement that voter petition signatures be witnessed, enabling voters to submit their signatures by mail or email.

 New York: Advocates for voters with disabilities have filed a federal lawsuit challenging New York's absentee ballot procedures for making it impossible to cast a secret ballot safely when in-person voting with accessible machines is unavailable. The plaintiffs note that military and overseas voters already have the option of filling out their ballot online, printing it out, and mailing it in, and ask that such an alternative be available for voters with disabilities.

 Ohio: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is dominated by Republican appointees, has stayed a recent lower court ruling and reinstated a prohibition on gathering voter signatures electronically for ballot initiatives while the case proceeds on the merits. This ruling may make it impossible for the ACLU to obtain enough signatures to put a constitutional amendment on November's ballot to enact automatic and same-day voter registration and several other voting reforms. The plaintiffs have not yet indicated if they will appeal.

 Pennsylvania: A federal district court has ordered Pennsylvania to let voters with visual impairments use an absentee voting method that allows them to fill out their ballot online and print it out to mail it in. This same system is available to military and overseas voters, and similar lawsuits in several other states have succeeded in recent weeks.

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