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The Fight To Vote Part 3: Court Hands State A Reprieve In Felon Voting Case

People gathered around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck in Miami as they learned about Amendment 4 and ate free ice cream. Floridians voted in November to automatically restore voting rights to most felons after they complete their sentences and probation.
Wilfredo Lee
AP File
People gathered around the Ben & Jerry's "Yes on 4" truck in Miami as they learned about Amendment 4 and ate free ice cream. Floridians voted in November to automatically restore voting rights to most felons after they complete their sentences and probation.

After years of voter disenfranchisement, Floridians had finally had enough. In 2018 state voters approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most felons. The legislature attempted to stymie that effort by passing a state law requiring them to repay fines, fees, and restitution. A lawsuit ensued, with organizations like the ACLU claiming the law amounted to a poll tax, and Republican lawmakers defending it. A recent win by advocates in the courts is spurring a push to register new voters, but the state was recently granted a reprieve that could put the effort in jeopardy.

Rep. James Grant (R-Tampa)
Florida House of Representatives

The crafter of the implementing law for Amendment 4 is Rep. James Grant (R-Tampa). As he was working on the bill, Grant claimed he was only following the wording of the amendment.

“If our bill is a poll tax and violation of the 24th amendment, then even at the strictest construction Amendment 4 is a violation of the 24th amendment because I think what people don’t realize is that probation is inherently a financial obligation,” Grant said.

Grant pointed to the testimony of Jon Mills, an attorney for the Amendment 4 campaign, who testified before the Florida Supreme Court in a hearing over the amendment's language, that it dictated repayment. Here’s Mills in an exchange with State Justice Ricky Polston.

“It specifically includes all matters included in the sentence, including probation and parole. So that means all matters anything a judge puts in a sentence,"Mills said to Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston.

"So, it would also include full payments of any fines?" Polston asked.

"Yes, Sir,” Mills replied.

Despite that, courts have consistently sided against the legislature on the issue Most recently, District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled the law was unconstitutional.

“It’s not a challenge to Amendment 4, it’s a challenge to the application of whatever in Florida law including Amendment 4 that requires that payment of money as a condition of voting,” Hinkle said. “The United States Constitution precludes a state from requiring payment of that amount as a condition of voting.”

ACLU attorney Julie Ebenstein is calling the decision a win in a lengthy battle against disenfranchisement.

“Florida was one of the only four states that took peoples voting rights away for life for any felony conviction and Amendment 4 was a first step in reversing a huge and historic injustice where one in 10 Florida adults was disenfranchised, more than 1 in 5 African Americans were disenfranchised,” Ebenstein said. “Amendment 4 is really the first step to correcting that historic wrong and that real mark on democracy in Florida.”

Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, says the judge didn’t hold back.

“There’s some powerful language in the ruling about just how irrational the state’s decision was in putting this requirement on people,” Morales-Doyle said. “I mean, the judge doesn’t just say that this was unconstitutional, he says that it doesn’t make any sense at all, that there just no reason for Florida to be doing this.”

Still, Florida’s Republican leaders fight on, most recently appealing Hinkle’s ruling.

“You just laid out all of the success we’ve enjoyed throughout this litigation and yet they [the state] remain steadfast not only in appealing the decision, but they also filed a motion to stay the district court’s decision meaning they don’t want any aspect of this order to go into effect,” said the Southern Poverty Law Center's Nancy Adubu. The SPLC is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Still, the organizations haven't won, yet. Wednesday, the state was granted a stay on Hinkle's ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court also agreed to hear Florida's appeal. In a rare move, all judges on the court will hear the case.

That stay was granted Wednesday. Morales-Doyle says the move comes at a problematic time.

“Unfortunately, what it means is that...until the case is decided on appeal, there will be a lot of people in Florida who don’t know if they’re eligible to vote."

The decision by the appeals court to accept the case comes as voter registration efforts, recently hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, we’re beginning to ramp up. The League of Women Voters of Florida is pushing to help get those felons registered before the November elections. League President Patricia Brigham says outreach has changed for them due to the coronavirus.

“Once it was clear that COVID-19 was a clear and present danger and we all went to a shelter in place which many Floridians are continuing to do we knew that we could no longer do person to person registration so we suspended it as long as we have to,” Brigham said. “We are doing voter registration by pointing Floridians to Vote411.org.”

Bob Rackleff and others prior to going door to door registering people to vote.
Blaise Gainey

Bob Rackleff, founder of the Big Bend Voting Rights Project is also starting to register voters again.

“We’re going to go start registering voters again and we’re expanding into ultimately 12 counties and we’re very hopeful about the outcome.

But if groups want to get more people registered, they’ll have to work fast. Florida’s primary is set for August 18th. The General Election is November 3.

In the next part of this series, we take a closer look at how both voter disenfranchisements combined with other laws have disproportionately impacted African American women.

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.