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    Felon Voting Florida Law

    What’s in a Name? Constitutional Disenfranchisement & Florida’s Amendment 4

    Olivia Diaz de Villegas
    By Olivia Diaz de Villegas   |   Staff Editor

    On September 11, 2020, The Eleventh Circuit ruled that felons in Florida may not register to vote until all fines and fees are paid in full. This decision rejects the argument that these financial requirements were an unconstitutional poll tax.

    This legal issue arises from the passage of a constitutional amendment, Amendment 4—Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, that restored the right to vote for many people with prior felony convictions in 2018. The Amendment provides that “any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” Fla. Const. art. VI, § 4(a) (2018).

    Those felons affected by this amendment began to register to vote as soon as they believed they were eligible. Shortly after the passage of Amendment 4, however, the Florida legislature signed into law Florida Senate Bill 7066, an additional provision that requires that all fines and fees owed be paid in full before obtaining voter registration eligibility.

    In response, felons sued to challenge Florida Senate Bill 7066’s financial requirements. The felons “complained that this requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to felons who cannot afford to pay the required amounts and that it imposes a tax on voting in violation of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.” The felons further allege that the laws are void for vagueness and constitute a denial of due process. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida declared both Amendment 4 and Senate Bill 7066 unconstitutional and granted a permanent injunction that permits any indigent felon who is unable to fulfill the financial obligations of Florida Senate Bill 7066 to register and vote.

    The inability to prove a violation of the Constitution led the Eleventh Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision and “vacate the challenged portions of its injunction.” The Eleventh Circuit substantiates its argument by creating a clear distinction between a fee that is a part of a criminal sentence and a tax. Through Florida Senate Bill 7066,  felons are not subject to an additional cost to vote, they are merely complying with the parameters of their criminal sentence. While that may be true, these fees inherently impact voter qualifications, leading to the disenfranchisement of felons—the polar opposite of Amendment 4’s intended purpose.

    Notably, U.S. District Senior Judge Robert Hinkle expressed his disdain saying, “…Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money…[f]or most, the required payment will consist only of charges the state imposed to fund government operations—a tax in substance though not in name.”

    The potential implications of this decision are significant, given the impending general election and Florida’s classification as a swing state. Several voting rights advocates and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) have implemented systems to help “returned citizens” ascertain the status of their fines. Further, prominent members of the community, such as Michael Jordan, and former New York City Mayor, Mike Bloomberg, donated to the FRRC so that felons can pay their fines and fees prior to Florida’s October 5 registration deadline.

    Though the FRRC has made progress, there are still 1.4 million returning citizens whose right to vote has not been restored. The President of the FRRC, Desmond Meade, expressed his dedication to this uphill battle stating, “we will not rest until we live up to the promise of Amendment 4 and see every one of the 1.4 million returning citizens who want to be a part of our democracy have the opportunity to do so.”

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