MIAMI — A Florida law requiring people with serious criminal convictions to pay court fines and fees before they can register to vote is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled on Sunday, declaring that such a requirement would amount to a poll tax and discriminate against felons who cannot afford to pay.
Florida did not explicitly impose a poll tax, Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the United States District Court in Tallahassee wrote, but by conditioning felons’ voting rights to fees that fund the routine operations of the criminal justice system, it effectively created “a tax by any other name.”
“The Twenty-Fourth Amendment precludes Florida from conditioning voting in federal elections on payment of these fees and costs,” Judge Hinkle wrote, calling the restriction an unconstitutional “pay-to-vote system.”
The judge granted a permanent injunction to civil rights groups that challenged the law as discriminatory for the majority of felons, many of whom are indigent. The state is expected to appeal. However, much of Sunday’s ruling is built on a previous ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, which would hear any appeal.
“This really is a landmark decision for voting rights,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that sued. “It’s a decision that will likely affect hundreds of thousands of voters — and it’s been a long time coming.”
Whether the decision will have immediate electoral impact is unclear.
With the November presidential election looming, voter registration groups will now likely redouble their efforts to sign up people released from prison after felony convictions. Major elections in Florida are frequently decided by razor-thin margins, and expanding the electorate by even a modest number of new voters could prove decisive.
The appeals court fast-tracked its earlier decision in the case, knowing that the election is approaching. But, with an appeal likely — and legal and political steps beyond that uncertain — it’s too early to assume that people affected by the ruling will be able to register to vote in time for November — or how many will vote even if they do.
The Florida secretary of state, who oversees elections, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Sunday’s ruling.
For decades, all Florida felons were barred from the ballot box. But in 2018, voters approved a landmark measure known as Amendment 4, automatically restoring voting rights for people who have completed their sentences for felonies other than murder or sex crimes.
The Republican-controlled Legislature then adopted a new restriction — that felons had to settle their financial obligations to the court before having their eligibility to vote restored. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed it into law last year. The state’s lawyers argued that voters knew when they supported Amendment 4, the measure restoring voting rights, that felons would have to pay their outstanding debts before becoming eligible to vote.
But the judge roundly rejected that argument — and noted that the state has no uniform way to let felons know how much they owe or have already paid.
“Surely very few Florida voters knew that every Florida felony conviction results in an order to pay hundreds of dollars in fees and costs intended to fund the government, even when the judge does not choose to impose a fine as part of the punishment and there is no victim to whom restitution is owed,” Judge Hinkle wrote in his 125-page opinion.
“Surely very few Florida voters knew that fees and costs were imposed regardless of ability to pay, that the overwhelming majority of felons who would otherwise be eligible to vote under Amendment 4 owed amounts they were unable to pay, and that the State had no ability to determine who owed how much.”
He upbraided Florida for failing to come up with a satisfactory way for felons to check how much they might owe or show the state that they could not afford to pay.
The judge ordered the division of elections to issue a form with which felons might request an advisory opinion on their eligibility to vote. The felon would then be able to register to vote within 21 days unless the division finds that the applicant is ineligible.
Judge Hinkle temporarily blocked the restriction in October, a decision later affirmed by appeals court. Judge Hinkle then held an unusual bench trial via video conference in late April and early May. The coronavirus pandemic had made it unwise for lawyers and witnesses to appear in court in person.
At the end of the eight-day trial, the judge said he would rule, as he did last year, that Florida could not refuse to restore a felon’s voting rights if the felon was unable to pay legal obligations. Several other legal questions remained to be decided during the trial, including claims that the law would amount to racial discrimination.
Ultimately, the judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not show that race “was a motivating factor” in the law. Neither was gender, he ruled.
During the trial, Judge Hinkle did agree with lawyers for the state when they said that there was no evidence to show that legislators intended to cause a racial disparity when they adopted the fee payback requirement. But the judge also noted there was nonetheless a clear “racial impact,” because so many Florida felons are black or Latino.
The judge during the trial had pressed Mohammad O. Jazil, a lawyer for the Florida secretary of state, the official who oversees elections, about possible partisan motives.
“Why is it that all the Republicans voted ‘yes’ and all the Democrats voted ‘no’?” Judge Hinkle said. “That is not a coincidence. It would be stunning if somebody told me that they did not realize that African-Americans tend to vote Democratic more than Republican.”