Florida cannot, for now, bar felons who served their time from registering to vote simply because they have failed to pay all fines and fees stemming from their cases, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Tallahassee federal judge's preliminary injunction that a state law implementing Amendment 4 amounted to an unfair poll tax that would disenfranchise many of the released felons.
“We disagree with the ruling," said Helen Ferre, chief spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. She said the state would immediately ask the entire 11th Circuit to reconsider.
The case is one of several now before judges amid high-stakes legal skirmishes over Florida elections, which have drawn national scrutiny because of the state's perennial status as a political battleground and the razor-thin margins deciding some high-profile contests.
Amendment 4 was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2018 to allow most felons who served their time to regain the right to vote. But soon after, the Republican-led Legislature passed a law stipulating that they must first pay any fines and fees before their sentences could be deemed complete under the law.
Voting rights groups representing 17 plaintiffs sued in federal court, seeking to overturn the law.
In its ruling Wednesday, the circuit court said the financial 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."
The court added that previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings required it to “apply heightened scrutiny in asking whether the requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to these plaintiffs.”
The appeals court ruled that it does, and it affirmed the preliminary injunction issued last year by a federal district court judge in Tallahassee.
Last year's preliminary injunction allowed felons to register to vote, regardless of their ability to pay fines, restitution and other fees. It was issued ahead of a full trial that is scheduled to begin in April.
Wednesday's appellate court ruling came one day after the registration deadline for Florida's March 17 presidential preference primary.
While the ruling only applies to the plaintiffs, the case has broad ramifications for the 1.6 million Florida felons who have completed their prison sentences and could regain their voting privileges under Amendment 4.
According to a study by a University of Florida political scientist, about 80% of released felons still have legal financial obligations.
Florida officials had hoped to win a stay of the preliminary injunction issued last October by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who called Florida's voter registration process in the wake of Amendment 4 an “administrative mess."
While Hinkle said Florida has the right to deny felons access to the ballot box if they have the means to repay outstanding financial obligations, he said Florida officials cannot deny the vote to felons who are to poor to fully settle up.
In issuing his ruling, he put pressure on state elections officials to bring clarity to the voter registration process. The appellate court's ruling only increased that pressure on county elections officials, who are mostly responsible for administering the state's election rules.
“This is a tremendous win for our clients and for our democracy," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Because the governor is still apparently planning to challenge this ruling, and because the governor and secretary of state are providing no clarity,” Morales-Doyle said, “there are a lot of people in Florida who are stuck with some uncertainty and some legitimate fear, and that's really unfortunate and not the way elections should work.”
Two of the three judges responsible for Wednesday's ruling were appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, while the other was first appointed by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, but later elevated to the appellate court by President Bill Clinton.
Meanwhile, two of the appellate court’s newest members — Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa — were most recently members of the Florida Supreme Court. Both were appointed to the state's high court by DeSantis shortly after taking office last year.
Florida's only Democratic statewide elected official, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, praised the appellate court's ruling and urged the governor to drop further appeals.
Fried called on her fellow members of the state Clemency Board to automatically restore voting rights to all felons qualified for re-enfranchisement under Amendment 4, regardless of financial obligations.
“We don’t have to wait on litigation or legislation,” she said. "We can restore voting rights immediately.”