Florida Just Seeing If The 24th Amendment Ban On Poll Taxes Is Really Written In Stone
It used to be the case that all people with felony convictions were prohibited from voting in Florida — but in 2018, ballot initiative passed by voters changed that, re-enfranchising former offenders throughout the state. This week, the state Supreme Court threw a wrench into that plan.
Since the passage of Amendment 4, Republicans in the state have tried their damndest to stop people from voting. (We're sure that has nothing to do with the fact that people of color are vastly over-represented in our prison system.) One of their tactics was to pass a law saying that former offenders can't register to vote until they have paid all of their court-ordered fines, fees, and restitution -- which many former offenders simply can't afford. The Florida Supreme Court upheld this definition of the new voting rights amendment.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was on-brand, praising the decision and ignorantly calling voting a privilege.
Voting is, of course, a fundamental right and not a privilege. And the Florida Supreme Court can't overrule federal courts, which have ruled that the inability to pay can't be a barrier to exercising the right to vote.
So this is all a mess, but there's still hope.
Here's the deal
In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly voted for Amendment 4, restoring the right to vote for almost all people with felony convictions and adding this language to the Florida Constitution:
any disqualification from voting arising from a felony conviction shall terminate and voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.
It was a huge victory for voting rights, giving back the right to vote to as many as 1.4 million Floridians.
Republicans, however, most of whom would prefer that we go back to the Constitution's original intent of only letting rich white men vote, have been trying to figure out new ways to disenfranchise people in their state. And that's now, in the year of our goddess 2020, civil rights organizations are in federal court litigating a fucking poll tax.
For the record, the 24th Amendment of the United States Constitution reads:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
Last summer, the Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 7066, requiring former offenders to pay all of their court-ordered legal financial obligations before registering to vote. And, on Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court agreed that that was totally cool and fine.
In an unsigned opinion, the state's highest court ruled that former offenders must pay all court-ordered fines, fees, and restitution before having their voting rights restored, holding:
We answer Governor DeSantis's question by stating that it is our opinion that the phrase "all terms of sentence," as used in article VI, section 4, has an ordinary meaning that the voters would have understood to refer not only to durational periods but also to all [legal financial obligations] imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt.
The amount a person is required to pay depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the crime and even whether they were represented by a public defender. Amazingly, people who could not afford an attorney and were represented by a public defender tend to have higher court-ordered fees, because the state doesn't waive public defender application fees for indigent people.
Even a small amount of money can be impossible for many people who have just been released from prison or parole, particularly when you consider all of the barriers former offenders face in the job market.
So that sucks.
But there's hope!
The Florida Supreme Court has the ultimate say over the meaning of the Florida Constitution, but that still doesn't mean Florida gets to violate the US Constitution. And civil rights have already won a victory in federal court for former offenders who are unable to pay their court-mandated legal financial obligations.
In October, Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida issued a preliminary injunction, holding that it's unconstitutional for the state to prevent otherwise qualified people from voting simply because they can't afford to pay what the sentencing court ordered.
In statements following the Florida Supreme Court's decision, the ACLU, ACLU of Florida, Brennan Center, and NAACP issued a joint statement with a reminder that "Florida cannot violate the US Constitution's protections" and "the right to vote cannot be contingent on the ability to pay," saying:
The Florida Supreme Court's advisory opinion does not — indeed, cannot — alter what the U.S. Constitution requires. A federal court has already held that the state cannot deny people the right to vote because of their inability to pay financial obligations. The U.S. Constitution also prohibits making voting rights contingent on the payment of taxes, and it requires Florida to provide due process to citizens before taking their voting rights away. Senate Bill 7066 violates these prohibitions, and nothing about the Florida Supreme Court's opinion changes that.
We should all be concerned by Governor Ron DeSantis' efforts to manipulate and engineer a result that attempts to eliminate the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Floridians. [...] Floridians voted to end lifetime voter disenfranchisement and to automatically restore voting rights to returning citizens in the state. They sought to end existing remnants of Florida's disgraceful Jim Crow era, but the Governor's actions effectively uphold them.
That litigation is still going on and the state is appealing the preliminary injunction decision to the conservative 11th Circuit.
This fight isn't over and probably won't be over any time soon. And while the Florida Supreme Court's decision was a setback, it's not the end of this story.
Here's Florida Supreme Court decision:
To be continued...
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