Republicans in the Sunshine State were highly dismayed when Florida voters approved a ballot measure last November restoring the right to vote to approximately 1.5 million convicted felons who had served their lawful sentences.
Prior to the passage of the measure, anyone convicted of a felony permanently lost their ability to participate in the electoral process in Florida, depriving them of a say in the passage of new legislation and their own governance.
The re-enfranchisement of thousands of former prisoners — including many minorities who were seen as being more likely to support Democratic candidates in a deeply divided swing state — so concerned the Republican majority in the Florida legislature that they immediately got busy passing laws to prevent the will of the citizens of the state as expressed in the successful ballot initiative from achieving its intended outcome.
The bill that they passed — SB 7066 — ensured that a majority of former prisoners would be prevented from joining the voter rolls unless they first reimbursed the state for a massive number of fines, fees, and criminal restitution that the legislators claim the ex-convicts owe to the public as the price of their incarceration.
The Republican legislation was vigorously opposed by voting rights advocates who filed law-suits to overturn the ill-conceived bill.
“This law will disproportionately impact black Floridians with a felony conviction, who face the intersecting barriers of accessing jobs in a state with long-standing wealth and employment disparities,” NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund litigation deputy director Leah Aden said in an article in the Law & Crime blog. “Because the Florida Legislature ignored these well-understood realities, SB 7066 must be stopped.”
If the Florida Republicans thought that the move — so contrary to voters’ wishes — would help them preserve their majority in the state legislature and their possession of both the Governorship and two Senate seats, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle has just burst their bubble.
Judge Hinkle declared that SB 7066’s provisions were an unconstitutional reimposition of the dreaded legacy of the Jim Crow era South, the poll tax levied to prevent people without sufficient financial resources — historically primarily African Americans — from voting. As his ruling states:
[T]he State of Florida cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution. And because, for this purpose,there is no reason to treat restitution differently from other financial obligations included in a sentence, Florida also cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources to pay the other financial obligations. [Another] court summed it up succinctly: “Access to the franchise cannot be made to depend on an individual’s financial resources.”
“Suppose a state adopted a statute automatically restoring the right to vote for felons with a net worth of $100,000 or more but not for other felons,” Hinkle hypothetically asked. “Would anyone contend this was constitutional? One hopes not. An official who adopts a constitutional theory that would approve such a statute needs a new constitutional theory.”
And a state government that would enact such a law, needs a new state government.
Hopefully, the majority of those 1.5 million formerly incarcerated, newly eligible voters will register and vote for a slate of candidates that will sweep the reactionary Republicans from office both at the state and at the federal levels so issues like these never need to be addressed again.
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Original reporting by Colin Kalmbacher at Law & Crime.