Most Florida felons had their voting rights restored after the passage of 2018’s Amendment 4. Earlier this year the legislature put in place a law that tied rights restoration to the repayment of all fines and fees. But, a ruling from U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle says the state can’t deny the right to vote based on a failure to pay, as long as a person genuinely can’t.
That is what Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in his ruling over a case to restore the right to vote to a group of Florida felons. That sentence, for now, makes the current Florida law governing how a felon could retain their right to vote, unconstitutional.
“What the court decided was a substantial step forward in that it declared a person who cannot afford to pay legal obligations cannot be denied the right to vote on that basis alone," explained Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice. “And that is a big win that delivers the promise of Amendment 4 that Florida voters overwhelmingly supported last year.”
But, how does a felon prove that they can’t afford to pay legal obligations? Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley says he’s looking for guidance.
“Potentially someone could just sign an oath saying I’m unable to pay and that may be good enough for us. Without any evidence to the contrary, I’m apt to take someone’s word for it,” said Earley. “Because I don’t have any basis for determining that. Maybe an indigent status or something like that but I didn’t see anywhere that that was required in the judge’s order.”
Although it’s not required, having an indigent status would prove that a person can’t afford to pay. Shannon Cash-Russell is a Director with Leon County Clerk’s office, she explains how a felon would go about claiming indigency.
“We have an affidavit in our office that they can fill out and based on the information they provide we can compare it to the federal poverty guidelines spreadsheet that we have to compare income and dependents. And we could certainly also verify property records,” explained Cash-Russell.
But she says she doesn’t know what it means for the funds that are still owed. She expects there to be a meeting soon to answer some of her questions.
“We’re going to have to figure out what do we do. Do we waive the money? Does the judge review it and convert it to community service?” questioned Cash-Russell. “I mean there’s a lot of alternatives I don’t know that we’ve come up with a final solution there.”
Meanwhile, Sweren-Becker with the Brennan Center thinks the next step should be taken by the legislature.
“Hopefully we will see guidance from the state of Florida and from the legislature that is consistent with precisely what the court ordered, which is a workable way for people to have an ability to pay determination, such that if they can’t afford to pay financial obligations that they are not denied the right to vote,” said Sweren-Becker.
For now, Supervisor Mark Earley encourages felons who believe they are eligible to vote to register.
“If you’re a convicted felon in a previous conviction and you feel you’ve completed all your terms of sentencing, go ahead and get registered to vote. Don’t worry about, I would not worry about being referred for prosecution. I think everyone is in agreement at this point that that’s not going to be the case,” said Earley.
He says the only felons he’s had to deny the right to vote are ones who have not completed their sentence. As of right now, he says he hasn’t received anything from the Department of State in reference to a felon who hasn’t paid all of their fines. And he believes the Department of State may wait until lawmakers make necessary changes during the 2020 legislative session to fix the process.