Voting Rights Have Been Effectively Denied to 700,000 Formerly Incarcerated Floridians

Supermajority Education Fund

September 17, 2020

On Friday, a federal appeals court upheld a law that denies voting rights to former felons if they have not paid off their court fees. In a 6-4 decision, this law could effectively prohibit 700,000 formerly incarcerated Floridians who have not paid off these fees from voting in November. 

As Slate noted, five of the six judges of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who voted to uphold this law are Trump appointees; the sixth — Judge William Pryor, who wrote the decision —  made it onto Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist. The four judges who dissented were appointed by either President Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. 

Critics of the legislation have compared it to a Jim Crow-style poll tax. During the Jim Crow era, voting officials would require voters to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar before they could cast their vote, or would quiz voters on the Constitution.

In addition, Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the United States District Court in Tallahassee ruled earlier this year that the law is unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court’s ruling that “voting cannot hinge on ability to pay.” 

“The Twenty-Fourth Amendment precludes Florida from conditioning voting in federal elections on payment of these fees and costs,” Judge Hinkle wrote in May. He referred to the Florida voting restriction as “a tax by any other name” and a “pay-to-vote system.” 

In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which reinstated voting rights for former felons in the state. But in 2019, a Republican-controlled Florida Legislature pushed through a bill requiring felons to pay court fines. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in June. 

“It is not constitutional, it is not legal, and it is not right to deny people the right to vote because you can’t pay,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times. “What this bill does is reestablish a poll tax.”

But on Friday, Judge William Pryor said the court fees are not a poll tax because they are a criminal penalty. Instead, he wrote in his decision, “it promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote…That criminal sentences often include financial obligations does not make this requirement a ‘capricious or irrelevant factor.’ Monetary provisions of a sentence are no less a part of the penalty that society imposes for a crime than terms of imprisonment. Indeed, some felons face substantial monetary penalties but little or no prison time.”

Judge Adalberto Jordan noted in dissent to this decision that “the fees and costs here do not aim to outlaw any behavior” but rather “serve primarily to raise revenue for the state, and therefore are taxes.” 

Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director for Southern Poverty Law Center, pointed out to The 19th that this decision will likely disproportionately affect Black women.

“When you talk about the ability to pay these fines, if you are a woman already making less money, if you are Black and already discriminated against, and if you are poor and don’t even have real access, then of course this requirement is going to have a disparate impact on low-income women of color,” Abudu told The 19th.  

According to CNN, this decision comes less than two months before the presidential election, where Trump won the state of Florida by less than 113,000 votes.