A federal judge in Florida temporarily blocked a law that set conditions on a voter-approved constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people with felony convictions.
The dispute centers on whether Florida lawmakers were justified in requiring felons to pay off all their legal debts before they can become re-enfranchised.
The ruling on Friday by U.S. District Judge
in Tallahassee, partly granting a preliminary injunction, applies to plaintiffs who brought the case, but could affect many others seeking to regain their voting rights. A trial is scheduled for next year to consider the merits of the law.
The constitutional amendment, which passed with nearly 65% support last November, re-enfranchised felons who have completed their prison terms as well as parole or probation, except those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault. It marked the largest expansion of voting rights in the U.S. since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. In a state where key races often are decided by slim margins, its impact could be significant.
Under the law in dispute, which legislators passed earlier this year and Gov.
signed, felons who have completed their sentences but have outstanding fines, fees or restitution don’t automatically regain their voting rights. Instead, they have three potential remedies: payment of the financial obligation in full, a court’s dismissal of the debt or conversion of the debt to community service.
Opponents of the measure said it undercut the amendment by excluding hundreds of thousands of people, while supporters said the law was needed to clarify imprecisions in the amendment’s language.
Soon after Mr. DeSantis signed the bill, groups including the American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court to challenge it, and several cases were consolidated. The plaintiffs were people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences but can’t vote under the challenged law because they haven’t paid off financial obligations.
In his decision Friday, Judge Hinkle barred the Florida secretary of state and county supervisors of elections from preventing plaintiffs from registering to vote solely because they can’t pay a financial obligation. He cited an appellate court ruling that held that “access to the franchise cannot be made to depend on an individual’s financial resources.”
In a recent hearing, Judge Hinkle said the system in place in Florida to restore voting rights to felons had become an “administrative nightmare.” Earlier this week, two key Republican lawmakers said they planned to propose tweaks to the disputed law in the next legislative session to address issues raised by the judge.
“This ruling recognizes the gravity of elected officials trying to circumvent [the amendment] to create voting roadblocks based on wealth,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Spokespeople for the Florida governor and secretary of state didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
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