Tuesday’s order applies to an estimated 1.4 million men and women. Though Florida voters in 2018 overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state’s constitution to allow automatic restoration of voting rights after prison, Republican lawmakers have sought to impose requirements that would block many from registering.
“This is huge. It’s a game-changer,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. A federal trial on the issue is scheduled for this month.
The Florida secretary of state’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Voting rights activists have criticized Republican elected officials for tinkering with what’s known as Amendment 4. Last year, the GOP-controlled legislature passed a bill that said paying fines and fees was part of serving a sentence and that anybody who owed money to the courts had to pay up before they could vote. DeSantis signed the measure into law, denying that it was discriminatory.
Court clerks across the state say fines owed by former felons who have completed their sentences and are on probation total more than $1 billion. The average amount owed is estimated to be $1,500, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
The requirement that citizens pay a fine before they can register to vote amounts to an illegal poll tax, critics of the legislation say.
In his ruling, Hinkle cited a woman who said she’s trying to pay her fines but “based on her income will not be able to pay off her financial obligations until 2031.”
“Many thousands of felons are unable to pay their relevant financial obligations because of indigency,” Hinkle noted. “Still others are unable to pay because the amount owed is out of reach even for a person who is not indigent.”
In October, Hinkle ruled in favor of the 17 plaintiffs. The state appealed that decision, but it was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. Judges in that decision said the state “may not erect a wealth barrier” to citizens who want to register to vote.
During a hearing last week — held via teleconference because of coronavirus considerations — Hinkle grew impatient with DeSantis representatives because they had not yet come up with a plan to let released felons know whether they owe any money before they can register.
“If the state is not going to fix it, I will,” Hinkle said.
His order Tuesday reiterated that. “The state’s records of financial obligations are a mess,” Hinkle wrote.
Volz said his group is “optimistic and encouraged” by the ruling. Ultimately, the case’s impact in this crucial battleground state could be significant in November’s presidential election.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, called it a major victory.
“We are pleased that the court appears to be consistent in placing people over politics,” Meade said.
Rozsa is a journalist based in Florida.