Voters’ groups plan to rally outside a federal courtroom Monday and demand an end to what they call Republican-built hurdles to granting voting rights to 1.4 million Florida felons.
TALLAHASSEE — While a pivotal hearing takes place Monday inside a federal courtroom, voters’ groups plan to rally outside and demand an end to what they call Republican-built hurdles to granting voting rights to 1.4 million Florida felons.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle is scheduled to open a hearing in Tallahassee into a lawsuit which seeks to overturn a new state law that allows those with felony convictions to regain their power to vote — but only after paying court fines, fees and restitution.
Voting rights organizations say the financial requirement is unconstitutional and would continue to keep most felons off the voter rolls. They are urging Hinkle to invalidate the law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But the governor and Republican lawmakers who pushed the legislation defend it as simply meeting the intent of Florida voters who approved Amendment 4 last November to restore felons’ voting rights.
Now, 11 months since that vote, Florida Democrats worry that Republican leaders are primarily seeking to delay Amendment 4’s impact to the point voter registration efforts will be blunted heading into the 2020 election season.
“I think Republicans have succeeded in obfuscating the will of the people,” said Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “Voter suppression isn’t just turning people away from the ballot box. It’s a concerted effort to make voting so confusing that people don’t cast a ballot. And that’s what we’re seeing.”
DeSantis doesn’t see it that way.
In a filing last week with the Florida Supreme Court, which he has asked to review the new law, attorneys for the governor said voters consider financial obligations part of felons’ sentences, which Amendment 4 said must be completed before someone can regain the right to vote.
“When Floridians voted to re-enfranchise certain felony offenders, they did so with the understanding that all terms of sentence must be complete,” DeSantis’ attorneys told the Supreme Court.
DeSantis and Republican leaders are pushing Hinkle to dismiss the federal lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. These groups argue the new law violates equal protection and due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and amounts to a “poll tax,” the segregationist-era requirement that kept many black and poor voters from registering.
A host of activist organizations, including Equality Florida and the Florida Poor People’s Campaign, plan to gather Monday outside the courthouse to call for an end to what they deride as a wealth-based barrier to voting.
At best, Republican leaders say any challenge to the new voting law should be settled in state court. DeSantis has asked the state Supreme Court to rule on whether Amendment 4’s promise that felons could regain voting rights on “completion of all terms of their sentence” means payment of all financial obligations.
If justices agree, it may bolster the state’s defense of the new law.
But arguments before justices aren’t scheduled until Nov. 6, stretching out the cloud that continues to hang over Amendment 4. This week’s federal hearing also may take a few days — and appeals of any rulings could further delay efforts to register qualified felons.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s lone statewide elected Democrat, says she worries about the timetable.
“Sure, that is absolutely a concern,” said Fried. “We are getting closer to 2020 and I don’t know if this is going to be resolved prior to the first ballot being cast in a primary.”
The first nominating contests in the presidential election, the Iowa caucuses, take place Feb. 3.
Fried, separately, is trying to get DeSantis and the Republican-dominated Cabinet to enact more lenient clemency rules to speed up voter restoration, but acknowledges that looks like a longshot.
“Now that felons’ voting rights are in the state constitution, I really thought we’d see more action in clemency,” she said. “But this is very frustrating.”
The Florida Rights Restoration, which spearheaded last fall’s ballot campaign, is trying to get many “returning citizens” as they’ve been dubbed, back on the voter rolls. The Florida Democratic Party also views these potential voters as part of its effort to register 200,000 more Floridians before the 2020 elections.
But University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith has prepared a report cited in the federal lawsuit that concludes court clerks’ data he analyzed shows that more than 80% of people with felony records have outstanding legal financial obligations, leaving them now ineligible to vote until these debts are paid.
Based on the analysis, voters groups argue that more than 1.1 million of the 1.4 million Floridians with felony records won’t be able to vote because of the state law crafted after Amendment 4 was approved.
Penalosa pointed out that the Florida Democratic Party launched a 24-hour “voter protection hotline” in August to assist Floridians with any problems with registration of casting ballots.
“The number one question we’ve received on the hotline are calls about Amendment 4,” Penalosa said.