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Federal Judge Signals Felon Voting is In Florida’s Future

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A federal judge said Wednesday that he intends to establish a process for Florida to allow voting by felons who cannot afford to pay court-ordered “legal financial obligations,” since elections officials in the state have not developed a procedure.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle made the comments came at the end of an eight-day trial in a voting-rights lawsuit that challenges a state law requiring felons who have served their time in prison to pay their legal financial obligations, including fees, fines, costs and restitution, in order to be eligible to vote.

The law, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year, was aimed at implementing a 2018 constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentences, including parole and probation.”

Hinkle referred to a decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a preliminary injunction he issued last October in favor of 17 plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.

In the Feb. 19 ruling, a three-judge panel from the Atlanta-based appeals court found that requiring all felons to pay their financial obligations violates equal protection rights that are guaranteed under the 14th Amendment because it “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can.”

Shortly after the February ruling, Hinkle granted class certification in the lawsuit, effectively adding hundreds of thousands of convicted felons to the case.

“Assume that (the preliminary injunction) order that was entered is going to apply to everybody in the class. I don’t think I’m going to surprise you. I’m going to follow the 11th Circuit decision,” the judge said Wednesday.

In that preliminary injunction, Hinkle ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” financial obligations associated with their convictions.

Additionally, the judge’s October injunction required state officials to develop an administrative process to allow voting by felons who have outstanding financial obligations and cannot afford to pay them.

Earlier this week, Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews told Hinkle that her office has not finalized a plan.

An attorney representing Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee also asked for more time to make a case.

Judge Hinkle replied, “I’m not going to set up additional briefing. I’m going to make a ruling. I expect it to be a whole lot easier to administer than anything you’ve dealt with so far. That may be a bit of a bold statement, and when I write it down, I may find that it’s not as easy as I thought it might be. I certainly don’t think it’s easy, but I hope to make it better for you. I hope it’s more administrable,” the judge said.

National voting rights groups argue that the 2019 Florida law is akin to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

Attorneys for the DeSantis administration released a procedure for identifying felons who had outstanding financial obligations in the days leading up to the trial.

However, the plaintiffs’ lawyers say the process is inadequate.

The revised plan instructs state elections workers to credit all payments felons have made — including fees to collections agencies or other third parties — toward the total amount that is assessed at the time of the felon’s sentencing. If the payments equal or surpass the amount that is assessed at sentencing, the voter is considered eligible, according to the new procedure.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers argue the revised process is problematic because clerks of court do not consistently retain records of restitution payments or payments made to collection agencies. Felons may not have to pay restitution to vote, if the restitution was not ordered at the time of sentencing, the say.

With the October deadline for Floridians to register to vote in the November elections in sight, Hinkle said he intends to rule “in a hurry” on the lawsuit.

“We need to get the case on up to the 11th circuit, assuming again that I don’t satisfy everybody,” he explained. “And, look, if you look at the remedy and you think you’ve got a better idea and you want to put it in a motion to alter or amend, put it in a motion to alter or amend. Just do it as soon as you can.”

Lawsuit Over Voting Rights Expands to Include Thousands of Felons