Appeals court ruling halts felons’ registration drive to vote

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Two months after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 in 2018 to restore the voting rights of felons who have served their time, hundreds of them began to register to vote.

The feeling of scoring what backers call a “monumental” victory didn’t last too long, though. A bill that demands felons pay outstanding restitutions and fees before regaining their right to vote threatened to stop the process.

At least three rounds of court battles have been fought over the constitutionality of the bill. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle had recently given backers of the felons’ rights some reprieve.

That lasted until last Wednesday when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th circuit stayed Hinkle’s order.  Ten of 12 judges said they will take up the issue next month as a whole committee.

The decision has created some measure of uncertainty for felons who have already registered to vote, said Mark Earley, Leon County Supervisor of Elections.

“It kind of puts people back in a position where there is a lot of guessing; a lot of fear about registering to vote,” Earley said. “That’s not a good place to be.”

In his ruling, Hinkle essentially said that having to pay fees, fines, cost and restitution is unconstitutional. But Gov. Ron DeSantis, who filed the appeal seemingly has gotten a victory in the recent round of court decisions.

Part of the uncertainty that Earley sees is that with an anticipated Aug. 11 date for starting the appeal, the registration deadlines could pass for felons to be ready to vote in either the Aug. 18 primary or on Nov. 3.

In his last ruling, Hinkle essentially said that fees can’t be used to stop felons from voting, a contention that the govern made in his initial filing with the court. With the stay now in place, Earley said his office has taken down explanation of Hinkle’s ruling from its website.

Meanwhile, the elections office has reverted to advising felons who believe they don’t owe fees to continue registering to vote. The amendment excludes felons whose records include murder or felony sexual offense.

Pastor Greg James estimates that about 500 formerly incarcerated individuals have registered to vote.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

“The worst that can happen is that they can come off the roll,” Earley said. “I seriously doubt that’s going to happen any time soon but we have not received the first advice from the state since the enactment of the Amendment 4 law.”

Prior to the stay, those who lobbied to get the amendment on the ballot in 2018 were moving ahead with registering felons to vote.

“We don’t know how they’re going to vote but in the minds of the Republicans they are thinking that they will vote Democrat,” said pastor Greg James, who led the Amendment 4 drive in North Florida. “So they (Republicans) would go to any length to make sure there is blockage; a hold on the process so I’m sure it’s going to the higher court.”

Registration deadline is July 20 for the Aug. 18 primaries. Registration for the general election on Nov. 3 will continue until Oct. 5.

The appeals court in Atlanta has scheduled oral arguments in the case for Aug. 10.

Michael Dobson, who has worked extensively with the Dream Foundation, said he has been looking into ways to help felons with required paperwork to know their status. 

Desmond Mead (center) led a state-wide push that led to passage of Amendment 4.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

Desmond Mead, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said he is optimistic that felons will vote in the upcoming elections. He just couldn’t estimate how many of the more than one million eligible returning citizens would register in time.

Having the governor’s appeal hanging in the balance won’t stop the drive, Mead said.

“Right now I’m cautiously optimistic because there are still extra chapters in this story because you have the possibility of appeal,” he said. 

Felons in Leon, Gadsden and Jefferson counties have been registering to vote, with about 500 of them completed, said James. However, stop and go created by the court challenges have discouraged some who are returning to society and have made providing for the families a priority.

“We have to constantly be engaged and constantly be validating that we are going to get our rights,” James said. “When you get them to understand the value of why they are trying to stop you, then you get them to understand how much power they have.

“You have to know you are valuable because they are trying to stop your vote.”

Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the organization has been fighting on the felons’ behalf before Amendment 4 was passed. They’ve been working with the ACLU in the fight complete restoration of voting rights to felons.

“This is one of the fundamental rights of every American; your constitutional right to vote,” she said. “Once you’ve served your time, you are now eligible to exercise that constitutional right that you lost while you were in prison. The first thing I’m sure that many of the returning citizens will want to do is exercise that constitutional right, which is precious.”

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