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Felons’ voting rights in limbo again after federal appeals court ruling

Hearing scheduled for August past voter registration deadline in Florida

It remains unclear if hundreds of thousands of Floridians who served their time for non-violent crimes will be able to vote this fall.

This week a federal appeals court granted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ motion to review a judge’s May ruling that determined the requirement for Floridians to pay all court costs and fees prior to being able to vote unconstitutional.

Months after voters approved the initiative, known as Amendment 4, to grant former felons their voting rights in November 2018, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill later signed by DeSantis stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other legal financial obligations before their sentences could be considered fully served.

A group of Florida residents impacted by this decision sued the state, along with the attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Foundation and the NAACP, among other voting rights groups.

In May, a federal judge ruled that Florida law can’t stop an estimated 774,000 disenfranchised felons from voting because they can’t pay back any legal fees and restitution they owe. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle called the law a “pay-to-vote system.”

During the federal trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs described the financial stipulation as taxes imposed by Florida lawmakers as a condition for accessing the ballot box, a burden they said disproportionately blocks blacks and the poor from voting.

DeSantis immediately appealed that ruling to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, requesting a stay of Hinkle’s ruling and a review of the case by the full appeals court.

The appellate court, in a three-sentence order Wednesday, granted both requests. Now, the governor’s attorneys will be able to argue to appeal that decision after the court granted a review of the judge’s sweeping decision that would have restored voting rights to more than 700,000 people.

During the trial, Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for the governor and the secretary of state’s office, said the intent of Amendment 4 was clear to voters: The ballot measure restores voting rights to felons after they complete all terms of their sentence, including parole and probation.

The hearing is scheduled for Aug. 11 in Atlanta, which is after the deadline to register to vote in the Florida primary.

A spokesperson for DeSantis declined to comment about the ruling.

“This is an ongoing legal matter and we will not provide further comment until a final resolution is made by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals,” Cody McCloud said in an email.

Desmond Meade is executive director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition And a felon.

“There are so many American citizens that live in Florida that are looking forward to that opportunity and for a politician to stand in their way, to stand in the way of democracy, to stand in the way of getting us to experience that is horrendous,” Meade said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.