The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that all legal obligations incurred by Florida felons must first be settled in full before the right to vote can be restored.
The decision puts a serious wrinkle in the plans of Democrats to flip the state blue. They had argued that serving time in prison should be sufficient to have voting rights restored and had been hoping that an estimated 774,000 former felons with unpaid obligations would be allowed to vote in the upcoming election, the Washington Examiner reported.
Fees and fines are part of a completed sentence
The Associated Press reported that a large majority of Florida voters had approved of Amendment 4 in 2018 and agreed that all former prisoners — except for murderers and rapists — should have their right to vote restored upon the completion of their sentence.
A debate about whether a completed sentence referred only to time served in prison or if it also included all of the attendant court costs, fees, and fines ensued the following year when lawmakers began trying to narrow down the definition.
In an earlier decision, a district court ruled that former prisoners could have their voting eligibility restored regardless of any outstanding legal obligations.
The full 11th Circuit Court heard the appeal, however, and by a margin of 6-4 sided with Republicans, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who argued that a sentence was not officially complete until fees and fines were paid in full.
“States are constitutionally entitled to set legitimate voter qualifications through laws of general application and to require voters to comply with those laws through their own efforts,” Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion. “So long as a state provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility — as Florida does — due process requires nothing more.”
“All terms of a sentence means all terms”
Of course, not everybody is happy with that decision. The four dissenting judges suggested in their minority opinion that it was sometimes too difficult for former prisoners to know exactly how much they still owed and that the state should make it easier for them to figure it out and make payments.
Further, left-leaning critics of the law and the ruling claimed that it had established a “pay-to-vote” system that was antithetical to democracy and disproportionately impacted minorities and the poor.
That isn’t exactly the case, of course. Those individuals aren’t being forced to “pay-to-vote.” They are simply being held accountable for their prior criminal actions, which entails more than merely serving time behind bars in many cases.
A spokesman for Gov. DeSantis, Fred Piccolo, said in a statement that the appeals court’s ruling confirmed that “all terms of a sentence means all terms.”
“There are multiple avenues to restore rights, pay off debts, and seek financial forgiveness from one’s victims,” the spokesman added. “Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive.”