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General News    H3'ed 1/29/20

"Modern-Day Poll Tax" Challenged in Federal Appeals Court Tuesday

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Florida citizens will cast ballots on March 17 to decide who they want to run for president in the fall. But it is not clear whether many of an estimated 1.4 million returning citizens in the Sunshine State will be allowed to register and vote. The uncertainty exists even though Florida voters changed their constitution in 2018 to restore the franchise to returning citizens who complete the terms of their sentence, including probation and parole. The change excludes those convicted of murder and felony sex crimes.

Florida is the third most-populous state in the nation, with more than 21 million residents. The state is known for producing razor-thin election results, court challenges and contested vote counts. More than 8 million citizens voted in the 2018 statewide elections here, some of which resulted in mandatory recounts. Political pundits also typically brand Florida a "swing state" in presidential elections; Donald Trump won Florida by about 100,000 votes in 2016.
Against this backdrop, a panel of three federal appeals court judges conducted an expedited hearing Tuesday in Atlanta that can decide what happens in the March presidential preference election, the August primary election and the November presidential election in Florida. Press reports indicate the judges were skeptical about actions taken by Florida officials. click here
The judges are sorting through conflicting assertions regarding the meaning of the constitutional change voters made, and a law -- SB 7066 -- signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. He signed the law after the GOP-controlled state Legislature approved it. SB 7066 became law about six months after 64.55% of voters acted to change the constitution. SB 7066 requires returning citizens to repay fees, fines and restitution imposed by a judge before they can register and vote. According to the Miami Herald, "The tacked-on legislative requirement will likely prevent hundreds of thousands of felons from voting because they can't afford to immediately pay back" their criminal justice debt.

Read more here: click here

The Southern Poverty Law Center, Campaign Legal Center, American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Brenner Center for Justice, and League of Women Voters filed several lawsuits, which have been combined as Jones v DeSantis. paignlegal.org/cases-actions/jones-v-desantis
In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a limited ruling blocking the state from implementing SB 7066. He also ruled that a documented inability to pay financial obligations cannot prevent returning citizens from registering and voting. He said state leaders must set up a quick and convenient way for Florida citizens to prove they cannot afford to repay their criminal justice financial obligations. Hinkle's ruling only applied directly to the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit. A trial is set for April in Tallahassee to resolve the constitutional and legal challenges raised by SB 7066, which critics call a "modern-day poll tax."
Hinkle also issued a second ruling in December. He did this after expressing anger at how state officials were reacting to his October decision. click here
Hinkle, in December, declared that returning citizens could register to vote but could not vote until the legal issues in the dispute are decided. He denied contentions by state officials that his action would harm the state in a way that could not be fixed. click here
After the October decision, state officials suggested they would "comply" with Hinkle's ruling. But the governor eventually took steps to challenge it. First Gov. DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court to issue an advisory opinion on the meaning of "completion of all terms of a sentence." The court recently sided with the Republican governor and state Legislature. click here
Gov. DeSantis also appealed Hinkle's ruling. That is why the federal appeal was heard Tuesday.
Here is an article I wrote for Democracy Chronicles that provides some context for the legal and constitutional battle. A disclosure is needed: I am not a lawyer. I am only a concerned citizen. ocracychronicles.org/former-felon-voting-rights/
I am also sharing some information supplied by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
click here. You can also get an audio and written transcript of a press conference held after the Tuesday court hearing. Contact Graeme Crews, Graeme.C rews|AT|splcenter.orgEmail address.

(Article changed on January 30, 2020 at 15:48)

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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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