Voter Suppression: Florida Can Bar Formerly Incarcerated Individuals From Voting if They Are Unable to Pay Court Payments

Maria Perez
Sep 11, 2020 - 5:17

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A federal appeals court in Florida ruled on September 11 to uphold a law that requires formerly incarcerated individuals in the state to pay off their fines and fees before they are eligible to vote.

In a 6-4 ruling, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to overturn a lower court judge’s decision that granted formerly incarcerated individuals in Florida the right to vote regardless if they were able to pay their fines and fees. 

The ruling stated “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.”

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle, whose decision was overturned by the court of appeals, said in May that the Florida law violates the Constitution.

“This order puts in place administrative procedures that comport with the Constitution and are less burdensome, on both the State and the citizens, than those the State is currently using to administer the unconstitutional pay-to-vote system,” he said, according to CNN.

In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for incarcerated people after they completed their sentence, ABC News reported. After the bill passed in January 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led Florida Legislature passed a bill that clarified that the end of a prison sentence would also include paying off any court fines and fees, the Tampa Bay Times reported. 

“States are constitutionally entitled to set legitimate voter qualifications through laws of general application and to require voters to comply with those laws through their own efforts,” Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in the latest ruling. “So long as a state provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility — as Florida does — due process requires nothing more.”

The latest decision disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of people from voting because they cannot immediately pay off their court fines and fees. It essentially amounts to a poll tax, a common tool used to primarily suppress the votes of people of color.

Voting rights advocates have also voiced their concerns and have called the decision unconstitutional. Deputy Director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Sean Morales-Doyle, called the ruling “a historic mistake and a defeat for voting rights.”

“It tells the state of Florida that it’s legitimate to put a price tag on voting. Worse, the court says it’s okay to do so even when Black Floridians owe more than their white counterparts, and even when many can’t even determine how much they owe and to whom,” Morales-Doyle said in a statement to The North Star. “By rejecting the district court’s ruling and upholding this law, the court has scored a win for voter suppression and blocked the way for hundreds of thousands of Floridians with past convictions to exercise their fundamental right to vote, in November and beyond.”

In a statement on Twitter, activist Desmond Meade wrote that he won’t rest until incarcerated people have an opportunity to be a part of democracy.

“The 11th Circuit’s decision is a blow to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of returning citizens across Florida who should have an opportunity to participate in this incredibly important election,” Meade wrote. 

To learn more about the disenfranchisement of formerly and currently incarcerated people, listen to episode four of America the Voiceless, a podcast about the fight to vote and the right to vote. The podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.  

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