Federal judge hears case to restore vote to Florida felons

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The latest clash over Florida’s ballot box began playing out Monday in a federal courtroom, where a judge is considering whether state lawmakers exceeded their authority by requiring former felons to first pay fines and settle other legal debts as a condition of regaining their right to vote.

As many as 1.4 million felons who have completed their sentences regained voting privileges under a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters last year.

But the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year passed a bill — later signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis — stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other financial obligations to complete their sentences.

Voting rights groups immediately sued for a temporary injunction that would allow felons to continue registering to vote and cast ballots until the merits of the law can be fully adjudicated.

The case is one of several legal battles under way that underscores how crucial the Florida vote is to Republicans and Democrats because of the state’s history of delivering razor-thin election margins. Disputes have erupted over early voting at college campuses — not to mention lingering concerns about the integrity of computer systems because of evidence of outside hacking.

By one count, more than 436,000 former felons in Florida — some who had already registered to vote under the constitutional measure known as Amendment 4 — will remain ineligible to vote because of the legislative intervention.

“The law serves no legitimate purpose. It won’t make people more able to pay, just less able to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, an ACLU attorney, argued in U.S. District Court for the Northern District Court of Florida in Tallahassee.

Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida testifying on behalf of the voting rights advocates, analyzed data from the state Department of Corrections and 58 of the state’s 67 counties. He told the court the undertaking revealed the complexities and shortcomings of state and local systems in determining whether a former felon is eligible to vote because accurate records of legal debts may not always be immediately available.

Smith testified that his analysis showed a racial component, as well, noting that black former felons were more likely to owe money after their release compared to their white counterparts.

Attorneys for the state argued that the stipulations put in place by the Legislature were reasonable interpretations of the language contained in Amendment 4, arguing that the Legislature allowed felons to seek waivers from a judge or ask that some of their financial obligations be converted to community service.

At one point, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle got straight to the heart of the dispute. Were the Legislature’s actions politically motivated? Were Republicans in the Legislature acting to disenfranchise African Americans, who historically have favored Democrats?

Hinckle, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, asked pointedly if the “intent was to help Republicans and not to help Democrats?”

While those questions weren’t directly addressed in the reams of documents filed in connection with the case, he told attorneys, “you might as well know I’ve got these questions.”

Gov. DeSantis had asked the federal court to delay its hearing until the Florida Supreme Court could issue a legally non-binding advisory opinion, which was sought by DeSantis to possibly help the federal court navigate the case.

Hinckle, however, declined to postpone the hearings, which was expected to continue into Tuesday.

It was not lost on Hinckle that as he began hearings on the dispute, Monday was the final day for Floridians to register to vote in the Nov. 5 election, when voters in Miami, Orlando and other of the state’s cities hold general elections.

Lee Hoffman, 60, told the court he had been excited to vote for the first time in his life, after a string of convictions that sent him to prison. Now a law-abiding citizen, he said he registered to vote soon after Amendment 4 went into place, despite discovering later that he still owed $449 in fees related to his previous legal trouble.

“I was so ecstatic,” said Hoffman, among the would-be voters who are plaintiffs in several lawsuits against the state, outside the court during a pause in proceedings. “For the first time in my life, I wanted to be counted.”

His attorney, Jonathan Diaz of the Campaign Legal Center, said Florida has become “the epicenter of U.S. politics” because of its potential role in deciding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and its history of high-profile controversies at the ballot box.

“When the stakes are very high, politicians and those with high interest in the outcomes want to make the system as favorable to them as possible,” Diaz said.

“The democratic process works best when everybody has the ability to participate, and your ability to vote should not depend on your ability to pay for it.”