A groundbreaking constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to about 775,000 people with former felonies in Florida has been devastatingly undercut by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled on Friday that the would-be voters must pay all fines and fees they may owe to the state if they want to go to the ballot in November.
According to USA Today, the decision from the federal appeals court came down on clear partisan lines and all but one of the judges in the majority ruling were appointed by President Trump.
From USA Today:
The appeals court’s ruling was written by Chief Judge William Pryor, who was named to the court by President George W. Bush and is on Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees. The other five judges in the 6-4 majority were appointed by Trump. All four judges in the minority were named by Democratic presidents.
“Because court costs and fees are legitimate parts of a criminal sentence – that is, part of the debt to society that felons must pay for their crimes – there is no basis to regard them as a tax,” the appeals court ruled.
After Floridians voted in 2018 to pass a constitutional amendment allowing ex-felons to be able to participate in the democratic process after serving and completing their sentences, Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican-controlled legislature instituted a measure requiring that the potential voters pay any fines and fees they owe to the state or be found guilty of breaking the law if they attempt to vote.
Though nearly a million people had their voting rights restored under the 2018 amendment, less than 90,000 have registered to vote so far, evidence of the likely intended chilling effect of the law that Florida Republicans passed in response.
In May, a U.S. District judge ruled that the new law was akin to a poll tax, especially since Florida did not have clear mechanisms in place for ex-felons to ascertain if they owed fees to the state.
Similar arguments were made by the overruled judges on the 11th Circuit federal appeals court who dissented from Friday’s majority ruling.
“Should any of these 85,000 registrants choose to vote in the upcoming election – as they may believe, in good faith, they have a right to do – they risk criminal prosecution if they turn out to be wrong about their eligibility,” Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote.
USA Today reports that in July the Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case by a majority vote, though Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented at the time.
Voting clearly matters, not only because Republicans are making concerted efforts to ensure many Americans cannot do it, but also because it ultimately helps determine which judges are appointed in every level of the judiciary.