"The ruling by a federal judge gave credence that the bill signed by Gov. DeSantis was nothing more than a modern-day poll tax,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard, Political Director at New Florida Majority. “This ruling is a victory not just for conscious-minded Floridians, but more importantly for hundreds of thousands of returning citizens. After 150 years we can now begin the practice of voting as a right, rather than a privilege."
Amendment 4, which was overwhelmingly passed nearly two years ago, eliminated the lifetime ban on voting by ex-felons. In 2018, Florida voters approved the amendment with more than 64 percent of the vote. The vote to approve the amendment overturned a 150-year-old law that permanently disenfranchised people with felony convictions.
In 2019, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that limited the law only to those who have paid their court-related debts. DeSantis said the law was needed in order to clarify what the amendment meant by "all terms," but critics charged that the measure amounted to a "poll tax."
Sunday, May 24th, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle issued a ruling stating Florida’s law approved in 2019 to install Amendment 4 was unconstitutional because it required ex-felons to pay restitution, fines and fees before being able to vote. Hinkle’s ruling would ultimately move hundreds of thousands of individuals who have already completed all terms of their sentence including probation and parole a step closer to earning back their right to vote.
Hinkle referred to the law signed by DeSantis as a "pay-to-vote system." He also noted logistical difficulties when having to actually find out how much an ex-felon actually owes. According to the Tampa Bay Times, “The ruling calls on state elections officials to determine the amount owed and allow felons to seek an advisory opinion for the full amount. If there's no response in three weeks, they should be allowed to vote, the ruling states.”
Hinkle voiced his concern that the bill discriminates against ex-felons who cannot afford to pay and that the law is a violation of the 24th Amendment, which says the right to vote shall not be denied "by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax."
"A state may disenfranchise felons and impose conditions on their re-enfranchisement," Hinkle wrote in a 125-page ruling. "But the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny. Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed system, this one falls short in substantial respects.”
Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, publishedone analysis estimating that more than 774,000 Florida citizens who have fulfilled the terms of their felony convictions have outstanding legal financial obligations. Hinkle’s ruling will affect the voting rights of as many as 1.4 million felons in Florida. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis plans to appeal the ruling.