Voting rights advocates in Florida and across the country are celebrating a recent federal judge ruling that opens the door for 1.5 million felons previously barred from voting to participate in the 2020 elections.
U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle has gutted a state law passed by Republican legislators in Florida that requires people with previous felony convictions pay all court fines and fees before they can register to vote, the Washington Post reports.
The measure was pushed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis after the passage of a widely celebrated ballot measure in 2018 that restored voting rights to people in the state who had fully completed their sentences for felony convictions (except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses).
In his ruling Judge Hinkle agreed with attorneys from the ACLU who filed suit against the state’s law and argued that it had a chilling effect on the groundbreaking measure that was intended to expand voting rights, since residents had no way to tell if they owed money to the state.
From the Washington Post:
Florida’s voter registration application requires residents to attest that they have “completed all terms” of their sentence. Without being able to determine whether they still owed fines, fees or restitution, many hesitated to sign the application for fear that they could be charged with perjury.
Hinkle’s order requires the state to tell felons whether they are eligible to vote and what they owe. It also requires the state to allow any felon to register if they are not given an answer within 21 days. No one will face perjury charges for registering and voting through this process, he ordered.
“The Twenty-Fourth Amendment precludes Florida from conditioning voting in federal elections on payment of these fees and costs,” wrote Hinkle, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, referring to the constitutional amendment that bans poll taxes.
Advocates had also argued that the state’s law was discriminatory on the basis of race due to the disproportionate number of black people in Florida who have previous felony convictions, but the federal judge did not agree.
The office of Gov. DeSantis has said it is reviewing the ruling, according to the Washington Post. Meanwhile, voting rights activists in Florida say they plan to move forward with efforts to get potential voters to register ahead of November.
“We will remain vigilant in our commitment to place people over politics, and ensure that all returning citizens, no matter how they may vote, have an opportunity to possess what we believe to be the most endearing sign of citizenship, the right to vote,” executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Desmond Meade said in a statement on the ruling.
“While we understand that this litigation may continue through an appeal process, we remain cautiously optimistic that this movement will prevail,” he added.