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How a court battle on felon voting rights in Florida could affect the 2020 election

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There’s a debate going on across the country about whether felons should be able to vote after they’ve served their time. The answer coming out of state capitals is increasingly: Yes. But what happens when states put up roadblocks to curb that, as Florida recently did?

A federal appeals court in Florida said Wednesday that Florida’s law requiring felons to settle fines before they can get reinstated to vote is unconstitutional, and the judges agreed to temporarily pause the law until there’s a final ruling on it. A spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said he will immediately ask courts to reconsider the ruling.

While the court battle isn’t over, Wednesday’s decision could have ramifications for the national debate over felon voting rights, as well as the voting pool for the 2020 presidential election in a key swing state.

Let’s explore this case, starting with:

The national debate over felon voting rights

For much of modern American history, a felony conviction has meant you give up your right to vote for life. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow felons to vote without any restrictions.

But that has changed drastically in recent years as various criminal justice reform efforts have gained traction across the political spectrum. Today, about 39 states offer some kind of restoration of voting rights to felons, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

A number of those changes have come recently, especially in Republican and some purple states.

In 2018, Louisiana restored voting rights to felons who have not been incarcerated for the past five years. In 2017, Alabama said drug possession won’t count toward being unable to vote.

In 2019, Nevada, Colorado and New Jersey expanded felon voting rights. On his third day in office, the newly elected Democratic governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, expanded voting rights to 100,000 people.

How Florida expanded voting rights — then limited them

Until recently, Florida had one of the harsher laws in the nation, banning felons from ever voting again.

Florida’s big change came by ballot initiative. In 2018, almost 65 percent of voters approved restoring rights for felons after they finished their sentences, despite opposition from Republican leaders. The decision could bring an estimated 1.4 million voters back into the voting pool, a massive number that advocates celebrated as one of the largest expansions of voting rights in U.S. history.

The court took that expansion seriously.

“Accounts differed as to whether this figure made Amendment 4 the single largest act of enfranchisement since the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, or the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971,” judges wrote in Wednesday’s decision. “By any measure, Amendment 4’s enfranchisement was historic.”

Months after the ballot initiative passed, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law, signed by its newly elected Republican governor, DeSantis, saying that felons also had to pay all fines, fees and restitution as part of the punishment.

Critics said the bill was a way for the Republican legislature in Florida to change the will of the voters and, ultimately, block new voters.

But what if these people, just getting out of prison, can’t pay? Are they prohibited from voting even when they’ve met all other requirements? Seventeen felons sued the state of Florida to get rid of that law. It’s been winding its way through the courts ever since, with Wednesday’s decision the highest-profile one yet.

What the courts said about Florida’s law

The state of Florida argued in court that voters approved the amendment in part because it allowed felons to vote who have “paid their debt to society” — including fines as well as their sentences.

The federal judges deciding Wednesday’s case found that “speculative.” You can’t get inside the head of every Floridian who voted for this to discover the motivating factor, they argued. “It is altogether unclear whether the people of Florida would have voted differently if they knew that the Amendment they adopted could not be constitutionally applied to those felons who were genuinely unable to pay despite their good faith efforts to do so,” they wrote.

Those seeking to overturn the law argued that the state law was a modern-day poll tax.

The court didn’t call it that, but it more or less agreed with advocates for restoring rights. The law, the judges wrote, “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can — and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”

That’s the definition of violating equal protection under the law as guaranteed to all Americans in the 14th Amendment, the judges said.

They noted that a lower-court ruling made clear that if you can pay your fees, you “must” before being able to register to vote. But the law as it stands now, the court wrote, is “preventing the plaintiffs from voting based solely on their genuine inability to pay legal financial obligations.”

So they agreed to pause the law for these 17 plaintiffs while more court battles play out over whether it should be struck down. It’s an incremental but also significant decision on the biggest debate over felon voting rights in the nation.

What this decision could mean for future debates over felon voting rights

Wednesday’s ruling affects only the 17 felons who sued for their right to vote regardless of whether they can pay their court fees. The next step in determining whether the law can stay on the books is an actual lawsuit about its constitutionality, brought by these same plaintiffs. But the Wednesday decision could help underscore for politicians across the nation that expanding felon voting rights is politically popular — and limiting them could get you in trouble with courts.

For example, Iowa is one of the only states that has a more-or-less permanent ban on voting rights. But in a sign of the changing times, the state’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, is urging the legislature to take the first steps toward changing the state’s constitution to allow felon voting rights.

“We’ve seen huge progress on this, and the court’s opinion acknowledges that not only is that progress real and spread across the country, it is guided by constitutional principles like the one they set forth today,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney on the case with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

What this decision could mean for the 2020 election

Voting rights has long been a cause championed by Democrats, who also have a lot to gain politically by expanding the voter pool. Whether we’re talking about felon disenfranchisement or general barriers to register to vote, research shows it often affects voters of color, who — broad generalization here — tend to vote Democratic.

The actual court battle over whether Florida’s law is constitutional doesn’t start until this spring, but Morales-Doyle expects the courts to move quickly so this can be settled before the 2020 election. And to date, the federal courts ruling on pausing the state law have been very clear that they think the law is unconstitutional.

So overall, this is one less hurdle for Florida Democrats’ efforts to expand the voting pool in this critical swing state. Florida has voted for the eventual president in 11 of the past 12 elections. This year, it will again be one of just a handful of states that could turn the electoral college toward or away from President Trump.

So far, the federal courts have indicated that all of those 1.4 million potential new voters should be allowed to vote in that election.