A Florida law requiring felons to pay legal fees as part of their sentences before regaining the vote is unconstitutional for those unable to pay or unable to find out how much they owe, said a federal judge’s ruling reported by the Associated Press. The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle involves a state law to implement a 2016 ballot measure approved by voters to restore the right to vote automatically for many felons who have completed their sentence. The Republican-led state legislature stipulated that fines and legal fees must be paid as part of the sentence, in addition to serving any prison time. The administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to appeal. Florida has an estimated 774,000 disenfranchised felons who are barred because of financial obligations. Many of them are African Americans and Democrats.
The judge called the Florida rules a “pay to vote” system that is unconstitutional when applied to felons “who are otherwise eligible to vote but are genuinely unable to pay the required amount.” By some estimates, determining the exact amount in fines and other kinds of legal fees owed by felons seeking the vote would take elections officials several years for those pending now. Hinkle said it’s unconstitutional to bar any voter whose amount owed could not be “determined with diligence.” Hinkle ordered the state to require election officials to allow felons to request an advisory opinion on how much they owe. If there’s no response within three weeks, then the applicant should not be barred from registering to vote, the ruling said. Hinkle said the requirement to pay fines and restitution is constitutional for those “who are able to pay.” The 2018 ballot measure does not apply to convicted murderers and rapists, who are permanently barred from voting regardless of financial obligations.