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Florida felons seeking voting rights face court setback

In May, a judge ruled felons in Florida cannot be restricted from voting if they cannot pay fines and restitution as part of their sentence.
Credit: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File
In this Thursday, May 14, 2020, file photo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Doral, Fla.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal appellate court has delivered a setback to Florida felons seeking to have their voting rights restored.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday it would stay a ruling by a lower court that restored the voting rights to hundreds of thousands of felons who had outstanding debts. 

The stay will remain in effect until the appeals court can review the case.

The stay could have significant national implications in November's presidential vote, especially as the state considered a must-win for Republican President Donald Trump. Florida’s estimated 774,000 disenfranchised felons, many of whom are Black and presumably vote Democrat, represent a significant bloc in a state well known for razor-thin election margins.

“It doesn’t mean we’ve lost -- it’s just a stay,” Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice, speaking with the AP, which is also among the groups representing plaintiffs.

“But it means there will be a lot of people who are unsure about their eligibility to vote,” he said, “and will be unable to figure out if they are eligible.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in May that felons in Florida cannot be restricted from voting if they cannot pay fines and restitution as part of their sentence. 

It was a significant 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 put 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.

It had been widely expected the state would appeal the ruling.

RELATED: Appeal likely after federal judge rules in favor of felons’ voting rights

RELATED: If they can't pay, judge says Florida felons can still vote

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