In November 2018, Florida voters moved to restore voting rights to 1.4 million convicted felons following their release. Amendment 4 to the state constitution was seen as a major victory for civil liberties advocates, who have been fighting across the country to restore the political voices of the formerly incarcerated.
But a Republican-controlled legislature quickly moved to undercut the powerful message sent by the state’s electorate, mandating last summer that felons must pay off any outstanding court and administrative fees before voting. On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court stood by the state law, ruling that “all terms of sentence” didn’t just encompass a person’s prison or probation time, but fines and other obligations tied to their punishment.
“We conclude that ‘all terms of sentence’ plainly encompasses not only durational terms, but also obligations and therefore includes all [legal financial obligations (LFOs)] imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt,” read the ruling. This means that outstanding civil court judgments would also need to be paid out by formerly incarcerated persons in order for them to legally cast a ballot.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he was “pleased” with the ruling on Twitter.
“Voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, and I am obligated to faithfully implement Amendment 4 as it is defined,” he tweeted.
Since the law’s passage, voting rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers have compared it to a “poll tax,” referring to Jim Crow-era policies designed to keep black people and people of color out of the voting booth.
According to Think Progress, which cites reporting from the Sun-Sentinel, the total amount of money people with felony convictions must pay back in order to vote will be well over $1 billion. The Southern Poverty Law Centered also noted that the law would slash the number of newly-eligible formerly incarcerated voted in half (h/t The Hill).
“By holding Floridians’ right to vote hostage, the Florida Supreme Court is permitting the unconstitutional modern-day poll tax…and redefining an amendment nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved of in 2018,” said the SPLC.
There are many reasons why paying back court fines would be challenging for the formerly incarcerated. Prison time means time out of the workforce, and depending on how long a person was behind bars, they could be re-entering a world that functions much differently, technologically and socially, than the one they lived in before they sentenced. According to the Sun-Sentinel, the unemployment rate for people with felony convictions is 27 percent, For people of color and women, that number is even higher (black women who were incarcerated are unemployed at a rate of 43.6 percent).
Debt also accrues while someone is in prison or in jail, and it’s not unusual for people with convictions to reenter society thousands of more dollars in debt.
But voting rights advocates vowed to continue the fight to preserve felons’ political rights.
“The movement that began to pass Amendment 4 was never going to go away after last year’s election,” the SPLC said in response to Thursday’s ruling, “but it is needed now more than ever to ensure everyone who is eligible to vote can register, and does so.”