Florida Felons Must Pay Fines to Vote, Appeals Court Rules

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Florida felons who are otherwise eligible to vote can be blocked from casting ballots if they haven’t paid all their court fees and victim restitution, a federal appeals court ruled -- affirming a law that could bar thousands of people from the polls in the swing state.

The 6-4 decision Friday by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta denies voting rights to hundreds of thousands of people with past felony convictions, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. That could impact the 2020 election because President Donald Trump won Florida by a margin of 1.2%.

Florida voters in 2018 lifted a ban on voting for more than 1 million felons who’d completed their sentences. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, last year signed into law a bill that imposed limits on the measure, including those at the center of the litigation. He argued that letting felons cast ballots before paying up would go against the will of the state’s voters.

Civil rights groups argued the law amounted to unconstitutional discrimination based on wealth. The plaintiffs earlier won an injunction against the law, and a three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld it. But an enlarged “en banc” panel of the court reheard the appeal and came to a different conclusion.

Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion that states have a constitutional right to restrict voting when it comes to felons, and that many do so in ways that would never fly with regular citizens.

“The only classification at issue is between felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including financial terms, and those who have not,” Pryor wrote. “This classification does not turn on membership in a suspect class: the requirement that felons complete their sentences applies regardless of race, religion, or national origin.”

A dissenting opinion by Judge Adalberto Jordan said the three-judge panel got it right the first time, and that the attempt to characterize the dispute as a simple matter of who has paid a fee and who has not is a pretense. The dissent especially criticized Florida for not being able to quickly and properly register who has and hasn’t paid their legal financial obligations, or LFOs, and can therefore vote.

“Incredibly, and sadly, the majority says that Florida has complied with the Constitution,” Jordan wrote. “So much is profoundly wrong with the majority opinion that it is difficult to know where to begin.”

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