The Slatest

Federal Court Reinstates “Pay-to-Vote” Scheme for Formerly Incarcerated People in Florida

A man who has never been eligible to vote is called up during a special court hearing aimed at restoring the right to vote under Florida's Amendment 4 in a Miami-Dade County courtroom in November.
A man who has never been eligible to vote is called up during a special court hearing aimed at restoring the right to vote under Florida’s Amendment 4 in a Miami-Dade County courtroom in November. ZAK BENNETT/Getty Images

In a reversal that would block hundreds of thousands of potential voters from Florida’s election rolls, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday that all Floridians formerly incarcerated for felonies must fully pay outstanding fines, legal fees, and restitution before regaining their voting rights.

On May 24, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle had thrown out the financial barrier to reenfranchisement, describing the fines as a “pay-to-vote system.” But the 6-4 decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stands to leave at least 774,000 people across Florida subject to a law evocative of Jim Crow–era policy.

In 2018, Florida voters passed a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to people who had served their sentences for felony convictions, excluding murder and sexual offenses. The state legislature, however, followed that up with a law to restrict voting eligibility to those who had fully paid their fines and fees. Those who could not afford the expenses were barred from reinstatement.

“It really goes against the foundations of democracy that people should not have to pay for the right to vote,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU Voting Rights Project and the lead attorney on the case. “It’s hugely disappointing.”

“Certainly making people pay to vote, disenfranchising people for being poor, especially when a disproportionate percent of those people are Black Floridians, is certainly reminiscent of [poll taxes],” she added.

Black Floridians are 16.9 percent of the state’s residents, but make up roughly 48 percent of the state’s prison and jail population. The incarceration rate for Black Floridians is 3.6 times higher than it is for their white peers and, as of 2016, nearly 500,000 Black residents with felony convictions have lost their voting rights.

Most people affected by Amendment 4 are too poor to pay the fines and a broken court system further muddies the process. Court records are not straightforward, making it difficult for the formerly incarcerated to know if they’ve settled their debts or how much they even owe. The four dissenting judges wrote that the system “ultimately throws up its hands and denies citizens their ability to vote because the State can’t figure out the outstanding balances it is requiring those citizens to pay.” And anyone who inaccurately swears that they have no remaining court debt could face jail time—despite the strong possibility that the claim was a mistake.

The reversal being handed down during a particularly devastating economic period further complicates how this could play out. Millions nationwide have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and in Florida the unemployment rate has remained relatively elevated. At the onset of the pandemic financial strain, twice as many Black Floridians were unemployed.

“You’re adding a poll tax during a time when people need help,” said Jorge Vasquez, who leads the Advancement Project’s national voter protection initiatives. “This is a horrible message. Yes, it’s a poll tax but it’s more than that. It’s a smack in the face of democracy.”

The ruling also serves as firsthand evidence of the impact of President Donald Trump’s aggressive effort to fill the federal courts with right-wing picks. Five of the 10 circuit court judges on the case were Trump appointees, and all five voted to overturn the lower court and block the would-be voters.

“With the recent confirmation of Andrew Brasher to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Trump has now appointed half of the judges on this court,” said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This decision is not only a setback for democracy but a reminder about the devastating impact of Trump’s nominees on our federal courts.”