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In Florida, courts might restore voting rights for more than 770,000 citizens

Jones v. DeSantis could affect constitutional rights, the election and how well former inmates re-integrate into society.

A poll worker holds a bin of stickers during the primary election in Miami on Aug. 18. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

For more than 770,000 U.S. citizens in Florida, the only thing preventing them from voting in the 2020 election is money.

Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law automatically restores the right to vote after a citizen completes their felony probation — but only if the citizen also pays off all their court fees, fines and restitution. Over half those in question owe more than $1,000. One in seven owes over $10,000. Those with enough wealth can pay and have their right to vote restored. Poor people cannot.

Over 770,000 citizens, disproportionately Black and overwhelmingly poor, continue to be disenfranchised solely because of those unpaid debts.

Is that legal?

Florida’s controversial felony disenfranchisement law is being challenged in the federal case Jones v. DeSantis. The court’s decision will affect interpretations of due process, equal protection and the 24th Amendment. And its outcome will determine voting rights for three-quarters of a million Florida citizens — possibly affecting the 2020 election. My research suggests this lawsuit will also affect citizens’ self-confidence and their ability to re-integrate into society after prison.

Here are four things to know about this landmark voting rights lawsuit.

1. Florida is defending its law from three constitutional challenges

On May 24, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida’s law was unconstitutional. Florida appealed Hinkle’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, where the case is pending. Three constitutional challenges are being reviewed.

First, the 24th Amendment prohibits conditioning voting rights on “a poll tax or any other tax.” Florida’s state courts self-finance by levying over $200 million in “user fees” against defendants each year. Hinkle ruled these court fees are “a tax by any other name” and cannot be linked to voting rights. But under Hinkle’s interpretation, Florida could still restrict voting rights for nonpayment of fines or restitution.

Second, Florida’s law conditions the right to vote on paying all legal financial obligations, but the law makes no exception for inability to pay. Hinkle chastised Florida for creating a “pay-to-vote” system that prevents citizens from voting solely because they are poor. He ruled this violates equal protection. Florida cannot condition the restoration of voting rights on a citizen’s wealth, any more than it could on race or sex.

Third, citizens have no way to verify whether they have unpaid debts because Florida does not have a centralized database that tracks payments. Florida won’t finish evaluating its current backlog of pending voter registrations until 2026, Hinkle noted. Unable to verify whether or what they owe, eligible citizens are discouraged from voting because they don’t want to accidentally commit voter fraud. That’s a violation of due process, said Hinkle. Florida must either tell citizens how much they owe or allow them to vote.

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2. This lawsuit might affect other states’ laws, too

If the 11th Circuit affirms Hinkle’s decision, that would invalidate other state laws that condition voting rights on paying debts that citizens cannot afford. States would either have to assess ability to pay or eliminate the financial requirement entirely.

Ten states’ attorneys general jointly complained that assessing ability to pay would create “substantial new burdens.” Instead of extending the franchise to poor people who couldn’t afford to pay, they threatened, some states might instead “scale back re-enfranchisement efforts for all felons.”

Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia disputed this, arguing that states were moving steadily toward re-enfranchisement and that if forced to choose, most states would opt to drop the payment requirement entirely.

3. Will Jones v. DeSantis affect the 2020 elections?

Donald Trump won Florida by just under 113,000 votes in 2016. Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial election was decided by fewer than 33,000 votes. This case, if decided in time, could affect the voting rights of more than 770,000 citizens.

Might that affect election outcomes in Florida? Possibly. Formerly disenfranchised citizens tend to vote less often than other citizens. But those who do vote tend to lean left. The 774,490 Floridians excluded by unpaid debt are overwhelming poor and disproportionately Black — two characteristics strongly associated with higher support for the Democratic Party.

The 11th Circuit is likely to announce its decision before Oct. 5, Florida’s voter registration deadline. The case will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court.

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4. The right to vote helps social re-integration and reduces crime

Disenfranchisement also affects the individual people who are banned from voting, my research shows. People evaluate their self-worth partially in response to others’ expectations. Being banned from voting creates a stigma that repeatedly reminds citizens of their criminal history.

In a recently published study, I show how policies that restore voting rights cause citizens to become more civic-minded and self-confident.

After Virginia’s governor launched a policy expanding the restoration of voting rights, I traveled to the state and recruited people on the restoration list to participate in a research study. Many of these people didn’t know about the new policy.

All participants completed an initial survey. I then met with a random sample of participants one-on-one, letting them know about the policy. As people found out their right to vote had been restored, sometimes after decades, their faces would light up. Some cried. They said things like “I can’t wait to tell my family!” and “I feel like a citizen again.”

Those reactions showed up in the data. One month later, all participants took a second survey. I compared responses to measure whether learning about the new voting rights policy caused people to change. Compared with a control group that didn’t receive any new information, participants who learned about voting rights became more likely to agree with statements about their own self-worth, such as “I consider myself well-qualified to participate in politics” and “I feel that I could do as good a job in public office as most other people.” They also said they were more likely to vote and more likely to “contribute time or money to a political campaign.”

Researchers know that these attitudes help people socially reintegrate after prison and reduce the likelihood of committing more crimes. Many other factors make a difference as well. But my research suggests voting rights could be one part of that puzzle, raising the stakes of pending legislation and voting rights lawsuits across the country.

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Victoria Shineman (@TorreyShine) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.