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SPLC: Federal Appeals Court Rules Against Florida Women in Ongoing Fight Against Pay-to-Vote System

In case of first impression, the Eleventh Circuit panel ruled the Nineteenth Amendment protecting women’s right to vote could not be used to strike down laws that disproportionately harm women’s ability to vote without showing legislative intent

ATLANTA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit yesterday ruled against Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton, clients in the McCoy v. DeSantis lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that challenges the state of Florida for requiring full payment of court fines, fees, and costs as well as restitution associated with past felony convictions in order to vote. 

In addition to the bigger challenge to Florida’s law SB 7066 as a form of wealth-based discrimination, Ms. McCoy and Ms. Singleton brought a separate case and appeal based on the unique obstacles that women of color face in paying off their legal financial obligations, given the challenges women experience in terms of employment post-conviction and pay inequities. They brought their gender-based claims under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the Nineteenth Amendment.

Following an appeal by the state of Florida of the largely favorable May 2020 district court decision, the Eleventh Circuit decided in September 2020 against Ms. McCoy, Ms. Singleton, and the other clients in that bigger challenge. Oral arguments in this appeal on Ms. McCoy and Ms. Singleton's separate case occurred in July of this year. 

The following statement is by Nancy Abudu, interim strategic litigation director for the SPLC:

"Our federal court system exists to protect fundamental rights from unconstitutional state action, but this ruling unfortunately runs contrary to the constitutional principle that no one’s participation in our democratic process should be conditioned on their wealth. The court’s decision means that - despite the overwhelming amount of evidence showing the disproportionate impact Florida’s pay-to-vote law will have on women of color - potential plaintiffs seeking relief from courts must still first establish that such laws were enacted for a discriminatory purpose.

“During trial last year, experts demonstrated that women of color face economic disparities in unemployment and poverty rates. These economic realities mean women of color like the SPLC’s clients Ms. McCoy and Ms. Singleton will remain shut out of the political process for likely the remainder of their lives. They will continue to be silenced from having a voice in the decisions that directly impact their communities. 

“This decision today and Florida’s ongoing pay-to-vote system don’t weaken our resolve to fight for a democracy that works for everyone. The SPLC will continue working with Floridians and pro-democracy Americans across the Deep South to dismantle racism, sexism, and wealth-based discrimination in voting. Meanwhile, Ms. McCoy and Ms. Singleton have started an organization called the ‘Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters’ whose mission is to register as many eligible voters as possible. And they continue to partner with organizations and activists across the state to realize the dream of a more inclusive democracy.

“The SPLC will also continue working with groups across the South to pass federal legislation to strengthen and protect voting rights. Pending bills in the U.S. Senate like the Freedom to Vote Act would, among other progressive provisions, restore voting rights for our clients in federal elections. The House of Representatives passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act earlier this year, which would provide federal oversight so that new election laws cannot be implemented if they are found to have a disparate impact on people of color.”