TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Voting rights advocates asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift a stay on a federal judge's ruling that allowed Florida felons to regain the right to vote, regardless of unpaid fines and other financial obligations.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last week granted a request from Gov. Ron DeSantis to review — and stay — a May ruling by a Tallahassee federal district court judge that was deeply critical of how Florida has set up road blocks for hundreds of thousands of felons seeking access to the ballot box under a voter-approved initiative.
The appellate court has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Aug. 18, the same day as Florida's primary. The deadline to register for that election is July 20.
Access to Florida's ballot box has been at the center of myriad legal disputes, underscoring the important role the state plays in determining the balance of power not only in Florida but also in Washington. With razor-thin margins often deciding key races, the outcome of the legal battle could have deep ramifications because the state’s estimated 774,000 disenfranchised felons represent a significant bloc.
Many of those felons are Black and presumably Democrats, and could play a decisive role in August and the crucial presidential election in November — if allowed to vote.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, along with other groups representing felons, asked Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Wednesday to set aside the stay.
“With impending registration deadlines and a primary to be held next month, the urgency is ratcheted up,” said Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“We are asking the Supreme Court to maintain the district court’s order which set clear, direct guidelines for the state and counties to follow after months of delay on the state’s part, so that all eligible Floridians can cast a ballot in the 2020 elections."
The Campaign Legal Center, which is also representing felons in the case, said the status of the more than 85,000 people who have already registered since the voter-approved initiative went into effect in January 2019 could now be in question.
In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, which would return voting rights to most Florida felons who had completed their sentences.
But a debate immediately erupted over what it meant to complete a sentence — which is at the crux of the continuing legal dispute.
Voter rights advocates sued the state last year after DeSantis signed into law a Republican-crafted bill that stipulated that, in addition to time served, all legal financial obligations such as unpaid fines and restitution would also have to be settled before a felon can be eligible to vote.
In his ruling in May, District Court Judge Robert Hinkle said that Florida lawmakers had devised a “pay-to-vote system," and he ordered the state to allow many Florida felons to vote — regardless of any outstanding legal debts.
Hinkle’s ruling said state elections officials were ill-prepared to review the hundreds of thousands of voter registration applications that could arrive ahead of the state’s August primary and the November presidential vote. During earlier court proceedings, he called it an “administrative nightmare.”
DeSantis immediately appealed Hinkle's ruling to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court agreed to hear the governor's appeal and to stay the lower court ruling.
Amendment 4 permanently bars convicted murderers and rapists from voting, regardless of financial debts.