The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled Wednesday that Florida cannot bar felons from registering to vote for failing to pay all fines and fees associated with their cases.
In 2018 Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which would automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons who had completed all the terms of their sentences. Prior to Amendment 4, felons in Florida were barred from voting for life. Florida legislature then passed Senate Bill 7066, which restored the voting rights of ex-felons provided that they paid all fines and fees associated with their cases.
Following the passage of this bill, 17 ex-convicts brought suit, challenging the constitutionality of the requirement. The US District Court for the Northern District of Florida issued a preliminary injunction requiring Florida to allow the plaintiffs to register and vote if they could show that they could pay their fees and would otherwise be eligible to vote under Amendment 4. The state appealed that decision.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit Court held that the requirement for ex-felons to pay all fines and fees associated with their cases before being able to register to vote violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although there was nothing unconstitutional about disenfranchising felons, the requirement disproportionately affected certain classes of plaintiffs who were unable to afford their fines and fees.
The requirement created a wealth classification that punishes those unable to pay fees more harshly than those able to pay. Florida’s interests in revenue collection and in deterrence of criminal activity were not served through this requirement. As the court said, “If a felon is truly indigent and unable to pay his LFOs, Florida’s requirement ‘obviously does not serve [revenue collection]; the defendant cannot pay because he is indigent.'” The court also found that the plaintiffs in this case were punished more harshly than those who committed precisely the same crime by having their right to vote taken from them for their entire lives.