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As Registration Deadline Nears, Ruling Expected in Voting Rights Case for Florida Returning Citizens

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A panel of three federal appeals court judges heard an appeal in a case that can affect the voting rights of up to 1.4 million returning citizens in Florida, many of whom felt their franchise was restored when voters overwhelmingly changed the state constitution in 2018. The Atlanta panel took the appeal on an expedited basis as a Feb. 18 voter registration deadline looms for Florida citizens who want to vote in the March 17 presidential preference election. .myflorida.com/elections/for-voters/election-dates/

Federal courts got involved after the Florida Legislature passed a law that was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. He signed the law about six months after voters changed their state constitution. Legislators contended wording in the constitutional amendment was vague; they wrote SB 7066 to define the meaning of "completion of all terms of a sentence." SB 7066 requires returning citizens to first repay all criminal justice debt imposed by a judge as part of a sentence before the constitutional right to register and vote accrues to their benefit.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held an expedited hearing on Jan. 28 at the request of civil rights and voting rights groups that represent returning citizens. The appeal was filed by Gov. DeSantis after a U.S. District Court judge issued an initial decision in October.
Judge Robert Hinkle ruled returning citizens can register and vote if they can document an inability to repay criminal justice financial obligations. He said the state must set up a quick and convenient way for potential voters to prove their inability to pay. But the ruling only applied to the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit -- Jones v DeSantis -- although it set the tone for what may follow at an April trial in Judge Hinkle's Tallahassee courtroom.
Advocates for returning citizens held a press conference in Atlanta after the hearing. Here is a link to an audio transcript of that press conference. It was provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the organizations representing Florida citizens.

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Steve Schneider lives in Florida. He writes articles for Humor Times, Democracy Chronicles, The Satirist and OpEd News.

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