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Disenfranchisement News: Judge Strikes Down Florida’s Pay-to-Vote System

June 01, 2020
A federal judge in Florida declared that it is unconstitutional for the state of Florida to prevent people with felony convictions from voting because they cannot afford to pay back court fees, fines and restitution.

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Federal Judge Strikes Down Florida’s Pay-to-Vote System

In a 125-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle declared that it is unconstitutional for the state of Florida to prevent people with felony convictions from voting because they cannot afford to pay back court fees, fines and restitution. The ruling strikes down parts of a 2019 law that was passed by Republican lawmakers after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4—a ballot measure that expanded voting rights to most people with felony convictions. 

“This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay,” Judge Hinkle wrote. The judge ruled that anyone who was issued a court appointed attorney because they could not afford one and anyone who had their financial obligations converted into a civil lien are automatically allowed to register to vote. These two groups make up a majority of people with felony convictions. For other people convicted of a felony who cannot pay, Judge Hinkle wrote that the person can request an advisory opinion from the Secretary of State. The office of the Secretary of State then within 21 days of receipt has to inform the person how much they owe and how they came up with that amount, or else they must allow the person to register.

Advocates File Suit Against North Carolina’s Felony Disenfranchisement Laws

In November 2019, civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates filed suit challenging the constitutionality of a North Carolina law that prohibits people with felony convictions from voting until after they have completed probation or parole, including paying any legal financial obligations. As a result of this law, approximately 70,000 North Carolinians are living and working in their community but are barred from voting, and 40% of those disenfranchised are African American. The plaintiffs argue that the law restricts people from voting “based on impermissible race and class-based classifications.”

A coalition of Attorneys General from the District of Columbia, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Nevada recently filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs. “Formerly incarcerated citizens should regain their right to vote without burdensome voting requirements that effectively block them from the ballot box,” said Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia. “Disenfranchisement laws disparately harm African Americans and low-income residents, suppressing their voices and stripping them of political power. Restoring an individual’s right to vote upon release helps them successfully reintegrate in their communities by fostering civic participation and reduces recidivism.”

Expanding Voter Access in Jails

The vast majority of the 700,000 people incarcerated in jails are eligible to vote because they are either awaiting trial or are serving a sentence for a misdemeanor conviction, but not a felony. Yet few jurisdictions have established a process whereby people in jails can vote. A new report by The Sentencing Project highlights jurisdictions that have adopted policies and practices in recent years to increase voting access for people in jails. The report features jurisdictions that have authorized local jails as official polling locations, community initiatives that have increased civic education programs in jails, and voter registration campaigns for incarcerated residents.”

“Now more than ever we need to ensure that all eligible voters — including those incarcerated in jails — have access to the ballot and are able to vote safely,” said Nicole D. Porter, Director of Advocacy at The Sentencing Project, and author of the report. “Communities are better served when incarcerated people have a voice in our democracy.” 

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