Federal Appeals Court Upholds Ruling for Restoration of Voting Rights in Florida


Desmond Meade registers to vote on January 8, 2019, after voting rights were restored to Floridians with felony convictions.

Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A federal appeals court has decided that the State of Florida cannot deny people with felony convictions the right to vote solely because they are too poor to pay fines and fees.

The ruling is the latest in a legal battle over Amendment 4—the state constitutional amendment passed in 2018 to restore voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people with felony convictions. The measure may be “the single largest act of enfranchisement since the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the Voting Rights act in 1965, or the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971,” the court wrote.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court order temporarily blocking a recent law that requires repayment of all legal financial obligations (LFOs) before a person with a felony conviction can have their voting rights restored under Amendment 4.

The lower court granted a preliminary injunction last fall after  people who were blocked from registering to vote because they were too poor to pay off their LFOs sued to challenge the law, known as SB 7066. The court order required the State to allow the plaintiffs to register and vote if they can show they are genuinely unable to pay their LFOs.

The State appealed, and the appeals court on February 19 upheld the injunction, ruling that SB 7066 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment “[b]ecause the LFO requirement punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can—and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”

“Disenfranchisement is punishment,” the court wrote. Under SB 7066, poor people “are punished more harshly than those who committed precisely the same crime—by having their right to vote taken from them likely for their entire lives”—solely because they’re poor. Meanwhile, “the wealthy identical felon, with identical culpability, has his punishment cease.”

The court also rejected the State’s argument that only a small number of people eligible for re-enfranchisement are genuinely unable to pay off their LFOs. Rather, the court wrote, the evidence suggests “that a substantial number of felons—maybe a majority, maybe even a great majority—are like these plaintiffs who claim to be genuinely unable to pay their LFOs and would be precluded from voting under Florida’s scheme on account of wealth.”

TPM reported that the decision will be appealed, leaving its impact on the 2020 election unclear.