Last year, Florida voters passed a referendum by a wide margin restoring the right to vote for ex-felons and the Republicans immediately passed a law putting all kinds of restrictions on that referendum. A federal judge has overruled part of those restrictions and reserved other elements for the Florida courts to deal with.
One element of those restrictions was to continue to deny voting rights to any ex-felon who still owed any money for restitution or in court and post-court fees, like private parole fees. The judge ruled that you cannot deny them the right to vote only because they can’t afford to pay such costs.
But the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed a law this year that requires offenders to pay restitution owed to victims, as well as fees or fines imposed by the court, in order to be eligible to vote. Lawmakers said they were clarifying the amendment, but it triggered a wave of lawsuits from ex-felons and groups such as the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida.
A key part of the lawsuit was whether or not Amendment 4 required that felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before being allowed to vote. That’s a question that the state Supreme Court will soon decide and Hinkle said that courts would have the “last word” on the issue.
Hinkle, however, did assert that the state can’t deny someone’s right to vote if they cannot afford to pay the fines, fees and restitution. A study presented by groups suing the state estimated that as many as 80 percent of felons eligible to vote under Amendment 4 still owed money.
“The state of Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution,” Hinkle wrote. “And because, for this purpose, there is no reason to treat restitution differently from other financial obligations included in a sentence, Florida also cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources to pay the other financial obligations.”
Virtually all of those restrictions will, I’m sure, eventually be found to be unconstitutional, under the state constitution if not the federal one. But this one is particularly egregious. It essentially conditions the right to vote on one’s wealth. Given that those who have served time in prison are far less likely to be able to make an adequate living, this is going to deny one of our most fundamental rights to more than a million people in Florida alone.
Republican-controlled legislatures around the country tried very hard after this and many other referendums that expanded the right to vote to limit the effect of those popular measures. They know that in an increasingly polarized political climate, the only way they can win in states where the vote is close is to restrict democracy itself through gerrymandering and measures like this. When your primary political strategy requires being anti-democracy, you’ve got a serious problem, both demographic and philosophical.