Felons’ voting rights once again uncertain

FILE - In this Thursday, May 14, 2020, file photo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news...
FILE - In this Thursday, May 14, 2020, file photo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Doral, Fla. A federal appellate court has stayed a lower court ruling that gave impoverished Florida felons the right to vote. The order issued Wednesday, July 1, 2020, disappointed voting rights activists and could have national implications in November's presidential election. In May, a federal judge ruled that Florida law can’t stop disenfranchised felons from voting because they can’t pay back any legal fees and restitution they owe. DeSantis immediately appealed to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, requesting a stay of the ruling and a review of the case by the full appeals court. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)(Lynne Sladky | AP)
Published: Jul. 3, 2020 at 9:50 AM CDT
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An estimated 770,000 felons too poor to pay their legal financial obligations believed they’d be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections after a federal court found the state could not block them from registering to vote.

But a federal appellate court has put that ruling on hold, once again blocking them from at least the August primary.

“It throws the rights of hundreds of thousands of Floridians into flux and chaos surrounding election rights is never a good thing,” Mark Gaber, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, which is representing plaintiffs in the case, said.

Florida elections are often decided by a few thousand votes so the outcome of this case could have implications for the November election.

The requirement for felons to pay fines, fees, and restitution before they can regain the right to vote was put in place by the Legislature after voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018.

Sponsor Representative James Grant asserts the law reflects the wording of the amendment itself.

“The amendment specifically reads, ‘All terms of sentence including probation and parole,’” Grant said.

There has been speculation that felons impacted by the financial requirements are more likely to vote blue.

But Democratic Strategist Steve Schale is skeptical.

“If you look at the population of felons, they actually line up pretty close both politically, ideologically as well as racially with the State of Florida,” Schale said.

And Grant said the law was not crafted with party in mind.

“My only job was to implement, enact the constitutional amendment exactly as it was presented to get on the ballot, exactly as it was presented to the voters and accept the political ramifications as they may be,” Grant said.

The appellate court won’t even hear the case after registration closes for the Primary.

But Gaber expects the case to be expedited.

“We’re hopeful that the 11th Circuit will move quickly to issue a full ruling on the merits and then if the Supreme Court needs to step in then that could happen before the November election,” Gaber said.

Registration for the general election closes October 5th. Without a decision prior to that, indigent felons will be effectively barred from voting one more cycle.

The ACLU, one of the parties suing to strip the financial requirements from the law, told us in a statement a previous ruling by the appellate court is still valid. However, that ruling only applies to the 17 plaintiffs named in the case, allowing them to vote despite having outstanding fines and fees.