Florida felons can’t vote until they pay fines, court rules

Federal appellate court reverses lower court’s decision

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Florida felons must pay all fines, restitution and legal fees before they can regain their right to vote, a federal appellate court ruled Friday in a case that could have broad implications for the November elections.

Reversing a lower court judge's decision that gave Florida felons the right to vote regardless of outstanding legal obligations, the order from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the position of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led state Legislature, leaving voting rights activists aghast.

Under Amendment 4, which Florida voters passed overwhelmingly in 2018, felons who have completed their sentences would have voting rights restored. But the legal dispute arose after lawmakers the next year moved to define what it means to complete a sentence.

In addition to prison time served, lawmakers directed that all legal financial obligations, including unpaid fines and restitution, would also have to be settled before a felon could be eligible to vote.

The appeals court agreed with the Republican lawmakers, a decision that voting rights advocates called an affirmation of a “pay-to-vote” system that primarily disenfranchises minorities and poor people.

“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote," said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project. "The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy.”

In a 200-page ruling on a 6-4 vote, the full 11th Circuit said the Constitution's due process clause was not violated by the passage of the law implementing Amendment 4.

“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 U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion. “So long as a state provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility — as Florida does — due process requires nothing more."