Many know that November 2018 served as a monumental month for individuals with criminal records in the state of Florida. Last November, voters approved Amendment 4 by an overwhelming majority. This measure is a constitutional amendment that restores voting rights to most convicted felons throughout the state once they have completed their sentences. Not surprisingly, thousands of felons registered after the amendment took effect on January 8, 2019.
However, the Amendment hit a roadblock when members of the Republican majority in the Florida legislature sought to impose further requirements upon those seeking refuge under the bill. The focus centered on the definition of what is meant by the term “completion” of one’s sentence.
A majority of felons have courts costs, fines, and restitution that is imposed as a condition of their sentence. Sometimes these payments are completed as part of their conditions of probation or early release from prison. Many others find themselves paying these amounts well after the incarceratory or supervisory portions of their sentences are completed.
Legislators sought to require payment of these amounts as a prerequisite to restore voting rights. Their argument focused on the completion of these payments as a requirement to fulfill the completion of one’s sentence. But those opposing the legislature cited the difficulty in felons obtaining employment after incarceration as grounds for not imposing such a requirement. Additionally, many argued the amendment was self-actualizing meaning that as written, further requirements could not be imposed.
On Friday, October 18, 2018 U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the state can ask that the fines be paid, but such a request could not bar voting if the individual could not afford to pay off their monetary sanctions. The judge wrote, “When an eligible citizen misses an opportunity to vote, the opportunity is gone forever; the vote cannot later be cast… So when the state wrongly prevents an eligible citizen from voting, the harm is irreparable.”
The Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a different but similar lawsuit next month. However, with election day about a week away, Judge Hinkle found the need to rule immediately a priority. The League of Women Voters who leads the effort to restore felons’ voting rights responded, “We’re thrilled that the judge ruled in our favor and said voting should not be pay-to-play.”
Who knows what will ultimately happen with the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. Yet no matter the result, one can see that this issue is poised to eventually make its way to the United States Supreme Court should they accept jurisdiction. Ultimately, the question will be boil down to how precious we view the right to vote? Is it indeed a fundamental right at the core of our democracy? Or is it a right that one earns through being a law-abiding citizen of our country? The policy implications are endless as it could create landmark precedent putting conditions on the exercising of all fundamental rights.
Judge Rules Florida Can’t Block Felons From Voting, Even If They Have Unpaid Fines | The Washington Post