A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against a Florida law requiring people with felony convictions to pay fines and other costs before they can register to vote.
Last November, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution that restored voting rights to as many as 1.5 million people with felony convictions.
Florida's Republican-controlled legislature then passed a law barring people with felony records from voting until they have paid all court fines and fees, including "any cost of supervision" like parole, even if the fines and fees were not part of the original sentence.
Millions of American families — disproportionately poor and minority families — are struggling to pay fees imposed by the criminal justice system, often forgoing basic necessities because failing to pay supervision fees and other costs can lead to their loved ones being returned to jail or prison. A recent study found that about 113 million American adults have an immediate family member who is formerly or currently incarcerated. As of 2011, the total amount of criminal justice debt owed by Americans amounted to around $50 billion.
A group of 17 plaintiffs who did not have the money to pay these costs filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that the new law effectively created an unconstitutional poll tax. They submitted evidence showing that roughly four in five people who have completed their sentences had unpaid fines, court costs, or restitution, the New York Times reports.
The court did not directly address the poll tax question, but ruled that Florida cannot refuse to restore a person's voting rights simply because they are unable to pay criminal justice debt.
The state can investigate whether a claim of inability to pay is valid and can establish a process for restoring voting rights, the court wrote, but it cannot "deny the right to vote to a felon who would be allowed to vote but for the failure to pay amounts the felon has been genuinely unable to pay."
The court temporarily blocked the law so that the plaintiffs can seek restoration of their voting rights by showing they are unable to pay.
"When an eligible citizen misses an opportunity to vote, the opportunity is gone forever; the vote cannot later be cast," the court wrote, adding: "Each of these plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state's only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay. The preliminary injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm to any such plaintiff."
The state could challenge the injunction in a higher court, the Times reports. Or it could change the law when the legislature convenes next year or wait for a final ruling after trial, which is now scheduled for April.
Voting rights advocates praised the ruling and said that while it technically applied only to the 17 plaintiffs, if the injunction is upheld, it will require the state to change its policy.
"The court’s decision is clear: The right to vote cannot be denied to anyone based on their inability to pay," Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. "The state must create a clear and unencumbered process that provides Florida’s returning citizens the ability to vote. This is an important win for our democracy."