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In a Victory for Voting Rights, Federal Court Rules that Florida’s Pay-to-Vote System Is Unconstitutional

The court ruled that requiring payment of court costs and fees to vote constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax and requires adoption of a system whereby the State has burden of showing a person’s willful non-payment

Click here for information on whether you can vote in Florida if you have a past felony conviction.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a significant decision for voting rights, a federal court on Sunday affirmed voting rights for hundreds of thousands of Floridians who are unable to satisfy the state’s onerous monetary requirements in order to vote in 2020 elections and beyond. 

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida struck down provisions in Florida law SB 7066 that required people with felony convictions to pay off legal financial obligations (LFOs) before they can vote. The court held the law discriminates against those who lack a genuine ability to satisfy their LFOs and would create an administrative nightmare for individuals, agencies and election offices given the lack of reliable state data related to LFOs. Moreover, the court concluded that conditioning voting rights on the payment of court costs and fees constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax in violation of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment. 

The landmark weekend decision in Jones v. DeSantis comes less than three weeks after an eight-day virtual trial that included oral arguments and testimony from plaintiffs and expert witnesses. 

To ensure eligible voters are not discouraged from registering to vote or wrongfully removed from the voter rolls, the court instructed the state to implement procedures that assume, unless proven otherwise, that a person with outstanding LFOs who completes the voter registration form lacks the financial means to satisfy those debts as a condition to vote. The court’s injunction also allows a voter or agency to seek an advisory opinion as to the person’s voter qualifications and imposes a deadline on state officials so as not to unduly delay the process. Notably, the appointment of a public defender or an affidavit of indigency serve as evidence of one’s financial status. 

The Jones v. DeSantis case was consolidated with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s McCoy v. DeSantis as well as Gruver v. Barton, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and Raysor v. Lee, brought by the Campaign Legal Center.

“This ruling is not only a victory for our clients and voting rights activists in Florida, but is an important step towards dismantling financial barriers to the ballot box across the country," said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The court’s decision also deals a serious blow to the Florida state legislature’s attempt to undermine the spirit and purpose behind Amendment 4. We hope the State will swiftly implement the court’s directives and stop dragging its feet.

 “While the decision did not go quite as far as the plaintiffs had hoped in recognizing the racial and gender implications of imposing a monetary fee in order vote in light of systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system and job market, we are pleased that legislators can no longer ignore the political voices of the overwhelming number of people impacted by this discriminatory law.”

The district court already had granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction that required the state to register anyone who lacked a genuine ability to pay their legal financial obligations (LFOs). A federal appeals court upheld that ruling in October 2019, and the lower court later expanded the injunction to not just the 17 plaintiffs in the case, but to the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by SB 7066’s LFO requirement. 

In a rebuke of Florida officials’ failure, including defendants Governor Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, to remedy the constitutional problems with SB 7066 identified previously in district court and appeals court’s decisions, Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in the decision, “In the 18 months since Amendment 4 was adopted, the State has done almost nothing to address the problem—nothing, that is, except to jettison the most logical method for determining whether the required amount has been paid and substituting a bizarre method that no prospective voter would anticipate and that doesn’t solve the problem.”

The decision, Judge Hinkle wrote, “will allow prospective voters to determine whether they have LFOs, at least to the extent that is possible at all; will allow them to vote if they are otherwise eligible but have LFOs they are unable to pay; will reduce though not eliminate the risk of unfounded prosecutions; and will allow much easier and more timely administration than the system the State now has in place.” 

SPLC clients Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton – African-American women from Jacksonville, Florida, who testified during the trial remotely from their respective homes – expressed relief and vindication in the decision. 

“For years, the state of Florida silenced me and others like me at the ballot box, which meant elected officials didn’t need to think about us when making decisions” said plaintiff Rosemary McCoy. “Over 5.1 million Floridians voted to change that, and I am ecstatic that today’s ruling honors the original promise of Amendment 4 in restoring people’s vote regardless of their financial status.”

“Returning citizens like me face barrier after barrier in securing full-time jobs that pay livable wages,” said plaintiff Sheila Singleton. “Demanding payment to vote as we attempt to support ourselves and our families is wrong, and I am glad today’s ruling made it clear that Florida officials cannot steal my right to vote from me.”

The court’s decision clears the path for individuals with felony convictions to register and vote in the 2020 primary and general elections and beyond without fear of prosecution if they genuinely lack the financial means to pay off their LFOs.  

“While we await Florida’s decision as to whether or not to appeal the court’s ruling,” added Abudu, “we’ll be directing our attention to holding the state accountable for enforcing the court’s order and educating returning citizens about their voting rights because their voices in our democracy matter.”

The SPLC legal team and clients are available for interviews.

The full decision can be viewed here: https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/documents/0420._05-24-2020_opinion_on_the_merits._signed_by_judge_robert_l_hinkle_on_52420.pdf 
 
To learn more, read the SPLC case page: https://www.splcenter.org/seeking-justice/case-docket/mccoy-et-al-v-desantis-et-al