Voting Rights Groups Sue Over Florida Law Targeting Formerly Incarcerated

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with a group of civil rights organizations, have sued the State of Florida after Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would require formerly incarcerated individuals to pay all of their financial obligations before the restoration of their voting rights.

The lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Florida, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund on June 28, states that DeSantis signed the law SB7066, which compels formerly incarcerated people pay all court fees and fines before they can vote. The lawsuit, Gruver v. Barton, was filed on behalf of 10 people by the civil rights organization and states that the law “unconstitutionally denies the right to vote to returning citizens with a past felony conviction based solely on their inability to pay outstanding fines, fees, or restitution.”In November, nearly 65 percent of Floridians voted to approve Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote 1.4 million people in the state after they completed their parole or probation sentence. The lawsuit states SB7066 violates the First, 14th, and 15th Amendments as well as the constitutional prohibition on poll taxes.

“Over a million Floridians were supposed to reclaim their place in the democratic process, but some politicians clearly feel threatened by greater voter participation. They cannot legally affix a price tag to someone's right to vote,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project in a statement from the Brennan Center for Justice.

In their statement, the civil rights organizations argue that the new law “punishes people based on their wealth by forcing those convicted of felonies to repay all fines, fees, and other monetary penalties associated with their convictions, or face disenfranchisement.”“Over 5 million Floridians cast their ballot in favor of Amendment 4, which removed a 150-year Jim Crow vestige that permanently disenfranchised people with felony convictions from voting,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the statement. “Simply put, SB 7066 thwarts the will of these voters by basing voter restoration on the ability to pay financial obligations. This law will disproportionately impact black Floridians with a felony conviction, who face the intersecting barriers of accessing jobs in a state with long-standing wealth and employment disparities. Because the Florida Legislature ignored these well-understood realities, SB 7066 must be stopped.”

In April, the bill passed through the House of Representatives in a 71-45 vote, the Miami Herald previously reported. At the time of the bill’s passing, Senator Cory Booker called the piece of legislation “a poll tax” on Twitter.

“The ability to vote should not be based on the size of one’s bank account,” said Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, in a statement.

“Floridians took it upon themselves to rid Florida of its Jim Crow past after state lawmakers refused to do anything about the state’s broken enfranchisement system for decades. Now, state lawmakers have chosen to return to Florida’s Jim Crow past by undermining Amendment 4 and conditioning the right to vote that was restored to 1.4 million Floridians on the ability to pay. It’s wrong, and it’s unconstitutional.” The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) found that incarcerated individuals in the District of Columbia and 14 other states in the US obtain their restored voting rights once they complete their sentences. There are 22 states where incarcerated people cannot vote while they are serving time in prison, probation or parole.

Earlier this month, lawmakers in Washington DC introduced a bill titled the Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019 to the DC Council. The bill would restore voting rights for individuals who are incarcerated in the district. Democratic Councilmember Robert White introduced the bill and it would repeal the 1955 law that prohibits incarcerated people from voting.

“I remind people that there is no provision in the Constitution removing the right to vote for people who have committed felonies. And those who have been convicted do not lose their Constitutional protections,” White previously said during a press conference earlier this month. “They do not lose their civil rights. They do not lose their citizenship. Why, then, would they lose their most fundamental democratic right?” Presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said back in April during a town hall meeting in Iowa that incarcerated people should have the right to vote, the Des Moines Register previously reported.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.