A Florida Law Limiting Formerly Incarcerated People’s Voting Rights Ruled Unconstitutional

Supermajority Education Fund

June 15, 2020

In late May, a federal judge ruled that a Florida state law that required formerly incarcerated people to pay all court fines and fees before they are registered to vote was unconstitutional. Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the United States District Court in Tallahassee wrote that by conditioning voting rights to fees that fund the criminal justice system, it effectively created “a tax by any other name.”

“The Twenty-Fourth Amendment precludes Florida from conditioning voting in federal elections on payment of these fees and costs,” Hinkle wrote.

In June 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law a bill that required people with serious criminal histories to fully pay back fees and fines from courts. As The New York Times noted then, these fines can add up to thousands of dollars, which might be impossible for some of these potential voters to afford. At the time, the ACLU argued that these restrictions would unconstitutionally limit the voting rights of convicted felons. 

“You shouldn’t be barred from voting because you’re poor,” Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, told Supermajority News. “But Florida’s fines and fees requirement imposed on formerly incarcerated people effectively did just that because if you’ve been to prison, it’s very likely that you come from poverty and that prison has left you even worse off.” 

Barring people from voting just because they were convicted of a felony is also not a reason to be barred from voting, Bertram added. “There’s no good reason for it, and it leaves whole communities with less of a voice in the political process,” she added.

In addition to violating individuals’ constitutional rights, experts say restrictions such as those Gov. DeSantis signed into law keep low-income residents from voting on the issues that affect them most — issues like healthcare, education, funding for community-funded programs, race relations, and LGBTQ+ issues. Requiring convicted felons to pay these fees will only put further barriers between voters and the change they need. 

DeSantis’ bill followed a victory for voting rights won in the November 2018 primary. Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which stated that “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” The amendment has enfranchised more than 1 million felons who were previously banned from voting because of their felony convictions. However, it excludes those who have been convicted of murder or sexual offenses. 

Now, by gutting its most recent unjust law, Bertram said, “Florida is taking a major step forward for equality and justice.”