Florida leaders are acting out the legend of the Little Dutch Boy who put his finger in a hole to plug a dike and prevent flooding.
The Sunshine State story starts with heroic state legislators who passed SB 7066 in May. The law defined wording in a state constitutional amendment approved by voters on November 6, 2018. Known as Amendment 4, it re-enfranchised up to 1.4 million former felons who were not convicted of murder or felony sex crimes. Almost 65% of Florida voters lifted a lifetime ban on returning citizens registering and voting after completing all terms of a sentence, including parole and probation.
But wait. The Republican-controlled state legislature, on a party-line vote, had a better idea. They decided to make it clear that all terms of a sentence include repayment of fees, fines and restitution imposed by a judge as part of a sentence.
GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law in June. This led to charges and counter charges. Amendment 4 backers lied, said some Republicans in an op-ed piece published in the Sun Sentinel. click here
Various social-justice organizations also roared, filing federal lawsuits, a few of which were joined in a case now known as Jones v. DeSantis. They insisted Florida imposed a "poll tax" and violated the federal constitution in other ways by discriminating against poor people and people of color.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote the next chapter in this voting-rights saga. He issued a limited ruling on October 18. The judge granted a preliminary injunction that blocks the state from enforcing SB 7066. However, his decision applies to the 17 plaintiffs in the case but suggests how up to 1.4 million returning citizens will be treated.
He wrote, "When a state wrongly prevents an eligible citizen from voting, the harm to the citizen is irreparable. 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." click here
After the ruling, the Florida Department of State said it will provide guidance to the 67 county Supervisors of Elections on how to deal with voter-registration applications from returning citizens, says Corey Goldstone, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups that filed suit. However, he told OpEd News, "If the state fails to follow the court's instructions, Judge Hinkle made it clear that we could come back to court to ensure compliance with the order. Otherwise, the remaining issues in the case will be addressed at trial in April 2020." Some of the remaining issues center on whether Amendment 4 and SB 7066 are constitutional.
Hinkle has also said the state's system to determine what former felons owe is a mess that needs to be fixed. Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator, served up a reasonable reply to issues identified by Judge Hinkle. He said, "Everything is on the table" when the Florida legislature starts its 2020 session in January. But Brandes said it made sense to hold off on drafting legislation until after the judge rules in the April trial.
Making matters worse, Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, "studied data from 48 of the state's 67 counties and concluded that over 80 percent of former felons had outstanding financial obligations putting their voting rights at risk." click here
Florida leaders could have declared victory after Judge Hinkle ruled the state has a right to seek repayment of debt from former felons. They could have stopped fighting the will of the people who voted for Amendment 4.
Unfortunately, they plan to spend more taxpayer money to go to trial in April. The state also plans to continue paying lawyers to appear before the Florida Supreme Court. The court has agreed to a request by DeSantis to issue an advisory opinion on the meaning of all terms of a sentence.
If the April trial doesn't go their way, leaders can appeal and appeal all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Maybe they'll win in court one day. But at what cost to voters and taxpayers?
More to the point, what is the point of this battle?
In September, a Florida group that has pushed to re-enfranchise returning citizens for most of this decade provided some context about SB 7066. A friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case said that the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition negotiated with state lawmakers to include language in the law that opens the door to polling stations for returning citizens who owe the system money. More-populous jurisdictions from Tampa to Miami and Ft. Lauderdale are putting in place legal mechanisms to get returning citizens registered to vote.
"If the legal financial obligation payment requirement is ultimately upheld, FRRC expects these provisions will significantly increase the number of returning citizens enfranchised by Amendment 4 in time to vote in November 2019 and any other interim elections," click here
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