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Supreme Court temporarily blocks felons from voting in Florida

Richard Wolf
Winter Haven News Chief
Winter Haven News Chief

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Thursday to let Florida felons who have completed their sentences vote in an upcoming primary without first paying fees, fines and restitution, as the state requires.

Voting rights groups had challenged the requirement as unconstitutional, given that state voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 giving hundreds of thousands of felons the right to vote. Now it will remain in effect while the case is heard next month by a federal appeals court.

The unsigned order was opposed by liberal Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. Sotomayor said it "prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor."

"Under this scheme, nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens cannot vote unless they pay money," Sotomayor said, calling it a "voter paywall."

The dispute over the voting rights of Florida's felons could be crucial in this fall's elections because of its perennial status as a swing state. There are about 775,000 felons in the state who have completed their prison sentences, including some 85,000 who have registered to vote so far.

Most states restore felons' right to vote after their sentences, along with time on parole or probation, are complete. Many states impose additional requirements. Florida is among 11 states with the most restrictive rules, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 allowing felons to vote after their sentences are complete. The initiative won 64% approval.

Thereafter, the state legislature passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law requiring that felons first pay all fees, fines and restitution owed as part of the process.

That restriction was challenged by voting rights groups, and in May, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle struck it down as a "pay-to-vote system." But earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit blocked Hinkle's ruling and scheduled a hearing for Aug. 18 – the date of the state primary. The registration deadline to vote is next Monday.

Voting rights groups told the Supreme Court that Florida's system amounts to a "poll tax" that violates the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.

"Most cannot afford to pay what they owe," the groups, including the Campaign Legal Center and American Civil Liberties Union, argued in court papers. Even those who can, they said, usually can't figure out what they owe years after their convictions.

The state responded that a felon's inability to pay means the sentence has not been completed, and therefore voting rights should not be restored.

"The state may insist on that requirement even if the felon cannot afford to pay the financial terms of his sentence," Charles Cooper, a lawyer for the state, argued.

This story originally published to usatoday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.