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Trial Over Felon Voting Rights Law Begins

Paper titled Felon Voting and a gavel
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Updated 9:08 p.m. ET, Apr. 27, 2020

The trial over whether a state law can require felons to pay back fines and fees before voting started Monday morning. Brennan Center for Justice attorney Sean Morales-Doyle says Florida’s law makes it harder for felons to vote.

"They didn’t just put a price tag on voting the evidence will show they created a system where returning citizens can’t tell what the price is and where the price might be different from one county to another," Morales-Doyle said. "The authors of Senate Bill 7066 knew that Florida lacked the data to know whether returning citizens are eligible to vote."

Mohammed Jazil represents the state. He says the law aligns with what took place during the Supreme Court review of the 2018 amendment.

“The Florida Supreme Court added and I quote," Jazil said. "The language at issue read in context has an unambiguous ordinary meaning that voters would most likely understand to encompass obligations including [legal financial obligations].”

Plaintiffs hope Judge Robert Hinkle will allow felons who are unable to pay their fines and fees to vote. A federal appeals court upheld a lower court decision that found the state couldn’t make paying fines and fees contingent on voting.

University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith says that’d help the majority of felons.

"A disproportionate number, a supermajority, over three-quarters of all individuals, over 774,000 of the million in Florida who have done their time owe some form of legal financial obligation according to my study," Smith said.

The plaintiffs also argue there is no adequate way to determine what a felon owes. Northwestern University political science professor Traci Burch says it’s so confusing, she thinks it actually deters people from seeking the right to vote.

“When confronted with the barriers I mentioned to finding information and the barriers that I mentioned later to paying LFO’s I think it’s very discouraging," Burch said. "It imposes sometimes astronomical costs, sometimes cost in the hundreds of dollars for people to have to pay to even research and then pay their LFO’s”

She did a study of over 150 felons that found nearly all except a few could not find out how much they owed. In October, Hinkle ruled the state cannot deny the right to vote to felons who are indigent. That ruling applied only to a select group of felons.

Due to COVID-19 and social distancing, the trial is being done with a video teleconferencing system. Citizens can listen by phone by calling 1-571-353-2300 and entering the code: 034872985. The trial resumes Tuesday morning at 9.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.