ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The state of Florida can't prevent felons who've served their time from registering to vote because they can't pay their fines and fees, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
More than 60 percent of Florida voters agreed most felons should be able to regain the right to vote after serving all terms of their sentence. They passed Amendment 4, but ever since the 2018 election, a political and constitutional war has been fought over how and when that right should be restored.
In January, the Florida Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, siding with Gov. Ron DeSantis and a large number of Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee who say felons must pay all fines, fees, and restitution before they’re allowed at the ballot box.
But those who say that amounts to a modern-day poll tax took their case to federal court.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled Wednesday in their favor, saying Florida can’t bar felons who served their time from registering to vote just because they haven’t paid what they owe. The three-judge panel upheld a federal judge's preliminary injunction that a state law implementing Amendment 4 amounted to an unfair poll tax.
The ruling addressed an injunction issued in 2019 and applies only to 17 felons who sued the state, including Clifford Tyson, a 63-year-old pastor in Tampa. The case involving the suit is scheduled to go to trial in April.
He said he's excited to vote in the upcoming presidential primary but he's frustrated many others won't have the opportunity.
"Although it's a reason to celebrate, it’s a partial celebration," he said. "The 1.4 million of my brothers and sisters who are still fighting—it still leaves their ability to vote in limbo.”
The man who led the way to pass Amendment 4 cautioned the ruling was far from final.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” Desmond Meade said in a Facebook post. “We will continue to operate under the color of law and utilize current legislation that allows people with fines and fees to seek relief from the courts ... this legal battle is far from being over."
DeSantis’ spokeswoman tweeted the governor planned to appeal the decision to all judges on the 11th Circuit appellate court.
The case could now end up in the United States Supreme Court.
“We’ve paid our dues to society," Tyson said. "It's disheartening because we want to be productive members of society, we want to do some of the right things."
There are nearly 1.5 million felons in Florida.
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