GettyImages-1180915942.jpg

Restoration of rights for formerly incarcerated Floridians is once again on hold after a federal appeals court granted a request to stay a lower court decision that “the state of Florida’s pay-to-vote system was an unconstitutional restriction on the right to vote.”

Earlier this year, a three-judge panel of the appeals court held that Florida’s Senate Bill 7066—which required formerly incarcerated people to pay any outstanding court or legal fees before exercising the voting rights restored by Amendment Four in 2018—violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. A federal district judge struck down the law in May using a novel legal argument relying on the 24th Amendment’s prohibition against poll taxes.

“The district judge’s order, basically setting up the procedure for people to be able to determine how much they owe, to register and vote if they are unable to pay their outstanding legal financial obligations, and declaring the court costs and fees piece a poll tax—all of that is on hold until the 11th Circuit rules,” said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel for voting rights with the Campaign Legal Center. 

According to Diaz, as passed by the state legislature and currently enforced, SB 7066 prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from registering to vote and casting a ballot if they have an outstanding legal financial obligation. During the trial earlier this spring, counsel for the plaintiffs were able to demonstrate that the state could not say with certainty how much anyone with a legal financial obligation actually owed, including the 17 plaintiffs to the underlying lawsuit.

“If you can’t even figure out how much you owe, there’s no way to determine whether you’re able to pay or whether you have paid enough to have satisfied the state’s statute, and are then able to register and vote, so it’s frustrating,” said Diaz.

Republican officials in Florida have fought to curtail access to the franchise after Floridians overwhelmingly passed Amendment Four in 2018. Dwight Bullard, a former state senator and political director for the New Florida Majority, said the news of the stay was disheartening, pointing to the state’s continued efforts to deny hundreds of thousands of people access to the ballot. Bullard is familiar with the fight to expand the franchise in Florida.

“From my vantage point, we are uniquely aware of the work that we did, and the work that was required to pass Amendment Four, and understand that we’re on the right side of history,” said Bullard.

As potential voters await yet another court to decide their fate, the voter registration deadline for the August primary is rapidly approaching. Florida residents need to register by July 20 in order to vote in the August primary.

“I hope the takeaway from all of these restrictions and the litigation that’s going on is that people recognize the importance of these offices and really get involved in making sure you know that they are contacting their secretary of state and their county boards of elections to voice their concerns about burdens on the right to vote,” said Diaz.

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.