TAMPA, Fla. — A likely appeal of a federal judge’s ruling could halt hundreds of thousands of new voters from being able to register for the upcoming November election.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled Sunday that felons in Florida cannot be restricted from voting if they cannot pay fines and restitution as part of their sentence.
It’s the latest ruling in a legal battle over the state's Amendment 4, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018 to allow felons who've served all terms of their sentence to regain their right to vote. In 2019, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill stipulating that "all terms" included all legal financial obligations.
The 125-page federal ruling also puts the onus on the state to determine exactly how much a felon owes in restitution if it's determined he or she can pay. That information has been nearly impossible for many felons to figure out due to the lack of a statewide database. If that information cannot be produced within 21 days, a felon cannot be kept from registering to vote, the ruling states.
Andrew Warren, the state attorney in Hillsborough County and early supporter of Amendment 4, said the ruling should send a message to opponents.
“You can’t keep defending wealth-based discrimination,” he said. “And you should allow the will of the voters to finally be implemented.”
But an appeal is “almost certain,” says Tampa attorney Richard Harrison who has advocated against Amendment 4 from the start.
“I don’t think anybody intended when they voted for Amendment 4 to make it okay for a convicted felon to walk away from restitution,” said Harrison, who is the executive director of Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy.
“This litigation is almost certainly going to go on, and given the time it takes for appeals courts to do things, it’s likely this decision isn’t going to take effect in time for the November election.”
Even Hinkle, himself, acknowledged he was unlikely to have the last word.
But Warren isn't waiting for the political and legal battle to conclude.
For months, he’s been working with the clerks of the court office, the public defender and the 13th Judicial Circuit to create a process to restore felons’ voting rights in Hillsborough County.
The county has established an application process to determine as accurately as possible how much a felon owes.
Once that's determined, the county has created a "rocket docket," a special court where a judge ultimately decides whether a felon can truly pay what they owe, or if fines can potentially be reduced or turned into community service hours.
This process is only open to felons who do not owe court fines or fees in other counties or at the state or federal level.
There are as many as 116,000 people living in Hillsborough County eligible to have their voting rights restored, according to Warren.
“We’re prepared to go forward with what we have done locally in anticipation of opponents continuing to drag their feet, continuing to fight back against what is clearly established law,” Warren said.
“We had seen the writing on the wall with this months ago and designed our system locally in anticipation of what this ruling would be.”
Warren says Hillsborough should serve as a model for other counties.
“Our hope is other counties across the state look at what we’re doing and build off it and improve upon it potentially so that Amendment 4 is open to everybody across the state the way the voters intended it to be,” he said.
Hillsborough and Miami-Dade are the only counties in Florida doing this. Palm Beach and Broward counties are working on similar fines and fees modification programs.
There are 773,000 felons who have to pay fees before they can vote, according to earlier estimates by the University of Florida.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet commented publicly on the ruling. A representative for his office said the ruling was still being reviewed.
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