TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A federal judge in Tallahassee ruled Sunday night that Florida law can't stop felons from voting because they can't pay back any legal fees and restitution they owe.
In a 125-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle called the law passed by the Florida Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis last year a “pay-to-vote system.”
Hinkle's order called court fees a tax and said it creates a new system for determining whether felons are eligible to vote.
The bill, which attempted to define what it means to complete a prison sentence, requires felons to pay all fines, restitution and other legal financial obligations before their sentences can be considered fully served. Florida voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018, restoring voting rights for felons. It permanently bars convicted murderers and rapists from voting, regardless of financial debts.
The judge's decision could have deep ramifications. Florida's estimated 774,000 disenfranchised felons represent a significant bloc in a state well known for razor-thin election margins. Many of those felons are black and presumably Democrats.
During a trial earlier this month, Hinkle asked during the state's closing argument, “Why is it all the Republicans voted yes, and all the Democrats voted no?”
“That was not a coincidence" Hinkle said then. “It would be stunning if somebody told me that they did not realize that African Americans tend to vote Democratic.”
The governor’s office is reviewing the ruling, Helen Aguirre Ferré, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email Monday morning.
Hinkle wrote that his order affirms that the state of Florida can “condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay.”
Reaction was quick following the holiday weekend ruling.
Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, called Hinkle's ruling a “tremendous victory for voting rights."
“The court recognized that conditioning a person’s right to vote on their ability to pay is unconstitutional," Ebenstein wrote in an email. “This ruling means hundreds of thousands of Floridians will be able to rejoin the electorate and participate in upcoming elections."