Federal judge rules Florida felons can’t be barred from voting because they owe court fines

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By Paul LeBlanc, CNN

    (CNN) — A federal judge on Sunday ruled that former felons in the state of Florida can’t be barred from voting because they still owe court fines or fees that they are unable to pay.

The ruling — which sets the stage for thousands of Floridians to register to vote — strikes down parts of a Florida law passed by Republican lawmakers that required residents with felony convictions to pay off all their legal financial obligations before casting a ballot.

US District Court Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in his decision that “this order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay or on payment of taxes, even those labeled fees or costs.”

“This order puts in place administrative procedures that comport with the Constitution and are less burdensome, on both the State and the citizens, than those the State is currently using to administer the unconstitutional pay-to-vote system,” he continued.

Convicted felons in Florida had their voting rights restored with a constitutional amendment passed in November 2018. Amendment 4, which allowed convicted felons who complete “all terms of sentence” the right to vote, passed with nearly 65% of the vote, exceeding the 60% threshold required.

After Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019, the GOP-led Florida legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, a bill that clarified “all terms of sentence” to include legal financial obligations such as fines, fees and restitution.

Multiple groups, including the Campaign Legal Center and American Civil Liberties Union, filed a flurry of legal challenges arguing the new law was unconstitutional and amounted to a “poll tax.”

“Today’s decision is a landmark victory for hundreds of thousands of voters who want their voices to be heard,” Paul Smith, vice president of CLC said in a news release Sunday.

“This is a watershed moment in election law. States can no longer deny people access to the ballot box based on unpaid court costs and fees, nor can they condition rights restoration on restitution and fines that a person cannot afford to pay.”

Last month, the case became a class action lawsuit — paving the way for Sunday’s decision to apply not just to the lawsuit’s 17 plaintiffs, but to more than 430,000 felons who would be eligible to vote but for unpaid financial obligations.

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