Ruling in favor of formerly incarcerated Floridians, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle determined the state of Florida’s pay-to-vote system was an unconstitutional restriction on the right to vote. In the 125-page trial order published over the holiday weekend, Hinkle examined each argument raised during an eight-day trial and determined that Senate Bill 7066 violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the 24th Amendment’s prohibition against levying poll taxes or other taxes that interfere with the right to vote.
Hinkle granted an injunction, which also provided a mechanism for determining inability to pay. The injunction included a form that would permit individuals who are unsure about their status to request an advisory opinion from the Division of Elections. Hinkle ordered the secretary of state and supervisors of elections to make this form available in hard copy and online. The state must also set out the actual amount of the legal financial obligation when an advisory opinion is requested.
“The injunction sets no deadline for the Division to provide an advisory opinion—there is no deadline under state law—but the injunction allows an individual to go forward with registration and voting after 21 days, unless and until the Division provides an advisory opinion showing ineligibility,” Hinkle wrote in the order.
The case was brought by the ACLU of Florida, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Campaign Legal Center, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the legal firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.
“Today’s decision is a monumental win for our democracy and the voting rights of returning citizens,” said Leah C. Arden, deputy director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in a statement on Sunday. “The court recognized that returning citizens should not have to pay to vote if they are unable to do so—and that certain legal financial obligations (LFOs) function today like the unconstitutional poll taxes that states erected to lock Black people out of the political system decades ago.”
Campaign Legal Center represented three of the individual plaintiffs but also brought a class-action lawsuit that was certified in April of this year. The decision in this case applies to all affected Florida voters.
“It’s a historic decision [in two] ways,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel with Campaign Legal Center. “Number one, it reaffirms the decision that Florida voters made in 2018 when they passed Amendment Four and restored voting rights to over a million of their fellow Floridians.”
According to Diaz, the second historical aspect of this is the application of the 24th Amendment (barring the use of poll taxes or other taxes to abridge or deny the right to vote in a federal election) to a rights restoration case. Based on a cursory review, this seems to be the first time a federal judge has used the poll taxes provision to uphold restoration of rights.
In his decision, Hinkle walked through several examples of what would constitute a poll tax or other tax as noted in the amendment.
“A law allowing felons to vote in federal elections but only upon payment of a $10 poll tax would obviously violate the Twenty-Fourth Amendment,” he wrote.
Relying on a bevy of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Hinkle found that a tax is an enforced contribution that provides support for the government. He further rejected the state of Florida’s assertion that people formerly incarcerated for felonies are not protected by the 24th Amendment.
Hinkle also highlighted the hypocrisy of the state of Florida’s insistence on enforcing a pay-to-vote system with lapses in the state’s ability to determine what was owed: “The takeaway: it is certain that some eligible voters will choose not to vote because of the manner in which the State has administered—and failed to administer—the pay-to-vote system.”
Information provided in testimony before the court demonstrated that the state officials could not accurately calculate the legal financial obligation presumed owed by the 17 plaintiffs, let alone the thousands of Florida citizens being denied the franchise. Hinkle explained that the state of Florida had been given the opportunity to fix its system.
It is unclear whether the state of Florida will accept this outcome or try to appeal. While the state could try to appeal this decision as it pertains to the poll tax finding, the 11th Circuit Court ruled against the state on the wealth discrimination aspect of the case in a previous appeal earlier this spring.
Hinkle’s decision represents a step forward in handling rights restoration cases where voting is predicated on ability to pay by “recogniz[ing] that conditioning a person’s right to vote on their ability to pay is unconstitutional,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, in a statement. “This ruling means hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to rejoin the electorate and participate in upcoming elections. This is a tremendous victory for voting rights.”