As Florida Republicans try to run out the clock ahead of the November presidential election, a trial started Monday in federal court in which former felons who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation, are contesting the GOP’s attempt to overturn the results of Florida’s 2018 referendum. They should prevail: The GOP action is an affront to the popular will. An estimated 1.4 million released felons in Florida, nearly 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population, were prohibited from voting as of 2016 — the highest number and percentage in the United States, according to the Sentencing Project. Among that cohort were a half-million African Americans, 20 percent of the state’s voting-age blacks.
Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters opted to undo those injustices, a lopsided majority in an electorate often closely divided. Undeterred, Republicans in Tallahassee led by Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted a bill last year that neutered the referendum’s outcome by barring any ex-convict from voting until their court costs and fees are paid.
According to expert testimony, more than 80 percent of Floridians who have completed their felony sentences still owe money — over $1 billion statewide. In many cases, though, it is virtually impossible for those individuals to find a definitive accounting of their debts. No state agency has a complete record, and some former felons who try to ascertain and pay what they owe descend into a rabbit hole of bureaucratic dysfunction and spotty record-keeping that varies wildly from county to county — “a mess,” in the words of U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who is overseeing the lawsuit.
State election officials have admitted this. “I don’t know where you go, a one-stop shop, to get something that says you’ve paid all your fines and fees,” Toshia Brown, the chief of Florida’s Voter Registration Services, said in a deposition. “I don’t know how [former felons] would be able to get that information.”
To that Kafkaesque nightmare, ex-convicts also face the prospect that they could face new criminal charges if they register to vote on the erroneous assumption that their rights have been restored. Doing so is a felony in Florida.
Republican lawmakers were fully aware when they enacted their bill mandating repayment as a condition of restoring voting rights that the vast majority of former felons are too poor to meet that requirement. In recent years, less than 20 percent of such debts were paid in the state, according to a report by WLRN, a public radio station in Miami.
A federal appeals court has upheld a temporary ruling that ex-convicts should be able to vote in Florida if they are “genuinely unable” to pay their debts. The trial in the lawsuit that began Monday will test that proposition, as well as the determination of Florida Republicans to permanently disenfranchise citizens who have already served their time.