By Kerry Rudd, Journalism Guild Writer
A federal court ruled that Florida cannot deny felons the right to vote based on their inability to pay fines or restitution.
“In his order, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida halted the implementation of SB 7066, which required felons to pay all restitution, fines and fees before they are eligible to vote,” reported Courthousenews.com on Oct. 18.
Months after Amendment 4 passed via landslide vote, state lawmakers passed SB 7066.
Amendment 4 is a constitutional amendment that restores voting rights to most felons once they have completed the terms of their sentences. That includes probation and parole. Restitution and fines are not mentioned in the amendment.
Judge Hinkle’s ruling only applies to the 17 plaintiffs in the case. The judge suggested Florida implement a system for felons to prove that they are unable to pay.
“When a state wrongly prevents an eligible citizen from voting, the harm to the citizen is irreparable,” Judge Hinkle’s written order said.
The court’s ruling leaves approximately 1.4 million felons without relief.
“Each of these plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state’s only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay,” the judge wrote.
Florida’s Supreme Court is now reviewing the governor’s petition to define what “all terms of a sentence” means in the constitutional amendment. That court will analyze whether restitution and fines are implied in the language of Amendment 4.
Judge Hinkle also said the U.S. Constitution prohibits voting eligibility based on a person’s financial resources.
According to a study submitted to the court by University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith, almost 80% of felons have outstanding debts.
More than 2,000 felons registered to vote in Florida in the first three months after Amendment 4 took effect. And thousands more have registered since, advocates say.
Before Amendment 4, Florida was one of only three states with a lifetime ban on felon’s voting rights.