Appeals court ruling puts former felons closer to the voting booth

By Anne H. Oman
February 24, 2020

Due to a decision by a federal appeals court on Wednesday, the approximately 2.000 former felons in Nassau County – and some 1.4 million ex=felons throughout the state – are a little closer to regaining the right to vote. But it is unclear whether this will happen in time to affect the 2020 elections.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that the requirement that ex-felons who have served their time pay all fines and fees before they can regain voting rights was unconstitutional. The appeals court judges found that, by discriminating against a class of people based on their wealth, the rule violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to all felons except those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses. But the Republican-controlled state legislature passed — and Gov. Ron Desantis signed – a law requiring payment of all fees and financial regulations before an individual’s right to vote could be restored.

Calling the measure “the Desantis poll tax,” 17 plaintiffs, backed by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the law, but a federal district court and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found it violated the Constitution. Technically, the ruling applies only to the 17 plaintiffs.

Desmond Meade, one of the plaintiffs, issued a statement on behalf of FRRC, saying that the group is “cautiously optimistic.”

“We recognize that there are still many steps in this litigation process, and this legal battle is far from being over,” he stated.

For starters, a spokesperson for Governor Desantis said that the governor does not agree with the decision and will seek an “en banc” review – a ruling by the full court rather than the three-judge panel. And the state may opt to set up a process whereby ex-felons would have to prove they are unable to pay the fines and fees, which can amount to thousands of dollars.

In a statement, Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party urged the Florida legislature to “repeal the Desantis Poll Tax, now!’

Political observers consider this outcome unlikely.

The deadline for registering to vote in November’s general election is October 5.

Nassau County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Cannon told the Observer that “we are waiting to hear from the Secretary of State’s office on how to proceed. She said that when the Amendment passed, some returning felons had come forward to register, but that “out of respect, we didn’t track them – we wanted to treat them equally.”

There is no clear indication when this guidance will be forthcoming.

Registered Republicans in Nassau County (39,267) far outnumber registered Democrats (14,556). There are also 13,190 registered voters with no party affiliation, according to the Supervisor of Elections. Statewide, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans,
5,039,757 to 4,793, 867. And there are 3,633,003 registered voters with no party affiliation.

Watch this space for further developments in this ongoing issue.

Anne H. Oman relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications. We thank Anne for her contributions to the Fernandina Observer.