WHEN FLORIDIANS voted overwhelmingly in 2018 to allow felons to vote, they were entitled to expect that their own votes would count — that people who had served their time would soon regain access to the ballot box. Two years later, a Republican campaign aided by a conservative majority on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has stifled the voters’ will and prevented potentially hundreds of thousands of would-be eligible voters from registering. Only the U.S. Supreme Court now can restore released felons’ voting rights, as the people of Florida intended.
An earlier version of this editorial inaccurately quoted the Florida constitutional amendment language. The amendment states, “Any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” This version has been updated.
Shortly after Floridians voted via a state constitutional amendment to enfranchise felons who had finished their prison sentences, the GOP legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) moved to require that, to register, ex-convicts not only finish serving their prison terms but also pay any fines or fees owed. This subversion of the ballot measure voters had just approved is a modern-day poll tax: Wealthy felons can easily afford to pay any court fees, while poorer felons might struggle paying off their debts.
Moreover, some 85,000 released-felon Floridians already had registered to vote. Reversing course after the fact would require election officials to try to go name by name, striking those who still owed court fees, without an accessible centralized database from which to pull the needed information. The system is so opaque, many felons themselves do not know whether they owe anything.
In other words, injustice and chaos are what the 11th Circuit endorsed Friday, when it sided with Mr. DeSantis. Voters commanded the state “to automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.” Republicans and the 11th Circuit argue that paying off fines and fees falls under the amendment’s definition of completing one’s sentence, even if state bureaucracy or poverty make doing so impossible. Three of the six judges joining in the 11th Circuit’s dubious ruling are on President Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court picks should he win a second term.
Understandably, the Supreme Court often resists meddling in election procedure disputes as Election Day approaches. But the argument to make an exception in this case is compelling. The partisan intent behind the Republican effort is clear. The campaign to ignore the will of the voters is egregious. The practical consequences of a chaotic last-minute disenfranchisement of possibly tens of thousands, in a swing state, just weeks before a presidential election, in the middle of a pandemic that already makes running an election extremely difficult, could be severe. The Supreme Court must step in.
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