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SPLC sues Florida officials to keep citizens from losing right to vote again

After completing her prison sentence and probation time, Rosemary McCoy had her voting rights restored and cast a ballot in the Jacksonville, Florida, runoff city council election earlier this year.

She had regained her right to vote in November, when almost 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4. The amendment changed the state constitution to restore the right to vote to over 1.4 million Floridians who – like McCoy – had completed their sentences for felony convictions.

Amendment 4 was widely celebrated all over the country for enfranchising the greatest number of people through a single law since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But a new law from the Florida Legislature threatens to take that right away again. Senate Bill 7066 requires people convicted of a crime to pay off all their fines and other court-ordered financial obligations before regaining their voting rights.

The SPLC this week filed a federal lawsuit against Florida officials, declaring that the law is an unconstitutional, Jim Crow-era poll tax that discriminates against people based on their wealth.

“We work, we pay taxes, but we don’t have a voice in our communities,” McCoy said. “We should have the right to hold our elected officials accountable and participate in our local political process.”

McCoy and Sheila Singleton, both black women from Jacksonville, are the named plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed on Monday by the SPLC in the Northern District of Florida. The lawsuit argues that the new law violates amendments 8, 14 and 24 of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law, consideration of a defendant’s ability to pay, and freedom from poll taxes and excessive fines.  

The SPLC lawsuit was filed on behalf of people like McCoy who had their right to vote rescinded “based purely on their low-income economic status,” the complaint states. “The State of Florida has a very long and storied history of denying poor people, racial minorities, and women the right to vote.”

Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for voting rights at the SPLC, said McCoy and others in her situation are in danger of being disenfranchised again. Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the named defendants in the suit, signed the bill into law on June 28. Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are Florida Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee and Duval County (Jacksonville) Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan.

“When Gov. DeSantis signed this law, he created a permanent group of second-class citizens,” Abudu said.Under this law, people who have outstanding fines, court fees and restitution – even when they have been converted from criminal sentences to civil liens – will be denied their fundamental right to vote.”

Black women disenfranchised

Women of color are paid less than their male and white female counterparts, and are likely to be more adversely affected by the new law, the SPLC argues. Nearly a quarter of all black women in Florida live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate for black women with a felony conviction is more than 43 percent. 

Senate Bill 7066 causes even more harm to people like McCoy and Singleton because they are black women with low incomes. Black women in Florida live in poverty at more than twice the rate of white women, and lower-income women of color represent a disproportionate and growing number of people in the criminal justice system. When women of color also have criminal records, their employment opportunities greatly diminish.

If people like McCoy and Singleton had the money to satisfy their court-imposed fines and fees, they would be eligible to vote under the law. Therefore, the law discriminates against them because they are black women with low incomes, according to the lawsuit.

The new law contradicts the intent and plain language of Amendment 4, the lawsuit states. Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment in November 2018 after recognizing that the law – which permanently bars people with felony convictions from voting even after serving their sentences – was unfair and discriminatory, Abudu said. 

The new law also creates an unconstitutional poll tax on people who cannot afford to buy back their right to vote, and promotes wealth-based discrimination as it violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, according to the lawsuit. 

Voting rights denied

“In a state where poverty rates among children, women and racial minorities remain disproportionately high, most especially among black women, the denial of voting rights based on one’s economic status is not only contrary to what true democracy looks like, but also feeds into widespread apathy and distrust of the political system,” Abudu said.

McCoy, who spent 21 months in prison and served 18 months on probation for charges of theft, racketeering and organized fraud, registered to vote in April and cast a ballot in Jacksonville’s runoff city council election in May. However, if an election were held today, the new law holds that people like McCoy, who owes more than $7,000 in court-ordered debt, would not be eligible to cast a ballot. 

McCoy said she cannot afford to repay the debt – as interest continues to accrue – even as her struggle to find employment has become harder because of her criminal conviction.

“I lost all my money, I lost everything,” McCoy said. “I’m not going to let them take my right to vote.”