TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For the last 18 months, the voting status of more than 1 million felons in Florida has been arguably the premier voting rights case in the nation.
And this week it’s on trial — virtually.
The initiative known as Amendment 4, which granted voting rights to felons, was overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2018. It allowed felons, except those convicted of murder or sex crimes, to vote as long as they completed “all terms of sentence.”
Those last four words have been hotly debated, however. The Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law last year defining “all terms” to include any court fees, fines and restitution to victims, which prevented hundreds of thousands of felons from voting.
The law’s passage led to a federal lawsuit filed by 17 plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, who claimed it created an unconstitutional “poll tax.”
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who is presiding over what’s expected to be a two-week trial, has already weighed in that it’s likely unconstitutional. Whatever he decides will almost certainly be appealed, but it could alter how many people are allowed to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The trial kicked off Monday over video conference, an irregular format in the hushed chambers of the federal courts. Normally, the public isn’t allowed to bring any electronic devices into federal proceedings. In the age of pandemic, however, witnesses are sworn in and deposed by lawyers over webcams, and the public is allowed to listen in on the proceedings.
Predictably, the trial has seen the same video conference glitches millions of Americans have been experiencing during this coronavirus crisis. Technical problems delayed the start of the trial by half an hour. People’s screens froze and had to be refreshed. Hinkle had to remind people multiple times to mute their microphones.
Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, which is representing several plaintiffs, accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature of continuing the state’s discriminatory voting history.
Amendment 4 overturned a racist law passed 150 years ago meant to keep black Floridians from voting. Morales-Doyle said that the law DeSantis signed last year is still affecting black Floridians at higher rates, and he noted that many court clerks are unable to tell felons how much in court fees, fines and restitution they owe.
“They didn’t just put a price tag on voting,” Morales-Doyle said. “They created a system where citizens can’t know what that price tag is.”
He and his colleagues introduced witnesses Monday to show that requiring felons pay obligations before voting was discriminatory and that, in some cases, it was difficult or impossible for felons to determine just how much they owe.
University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith estimated that at least 1 million felons could be eligible to vote under Amendment 4. That’s a conservative estimate that doesn’t include Floridians convicted in other states or in federal court.
Smith testified Monday that at least 77.4% of those 1 million people owe court fees, fines or restitution. Of those people, 60% owed at least $1,000 and 80% owe at least $500, amounts that are out of reach for people who already have trouble finding work with a felony conviction.
“The deck is stacked against them,” Smith said.
Traci Burch, a political science professor at Northwestern University, testified that she took a random sample of 153 felons to figure out how much they owed. She consulted a state database, local clerk of court websites and called court clerk staff to see how much those people owed.
Those three sources gave answers that were inconsistent with each other for 150 of the 153 cases, Burch said.
But the attorney representing the official who oversees the state’s elections system, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, argued that it was well established that Amendment 4 would require felons to pay back all financial obligations before voting.
“The proponents of Amendment 4 said so themselves,” Mohammad Jazil said. “They said so before the Florida Supreme Court in 2017. That position was repeated in voter guides, the (American Civil Liberties Union’s) own voter guide.”
Despite the restrictions, some felons who owe money have been voting. Latoya Moreland, 39, was working for Manatee Memorial Hospital until she was fired in 2011 after pleading no contest to possession of a controlled substance. She’s been mostly out of work since and subsists primarily from disability payments.
Moreland testified Monday that her daughter voted for Amendment 4 in 2018. Following its passage, she registered to vote in April 2019. As a black woman, she said she never gets second chances, but Amendment 4 offered one.
“I felt like this would be my second chance, to make my voice heard, to make my daughters proud of me,” Moreland said.
Three months after registering to vote, however, the Manatee County elections supervisor sent her a notice telling her she still owed $645 in court fees, an amount she says she cannot pay.
“I ripped the paper up,” she said.
But in March this year, she checked online to see if she’d been removed from the county’s voter rolls. The site showed she was still eligible to vote, she said, so she went to her polling place and voted in the presidential preference primary.
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