A major consequence of committing a felony is the loss of one's right to vote. For 150 years, that consequence was permanent for all convicted felons. But, that started to change in 2018 when Florida voters approved to make an amendment to that law. With this amendment, those guilty of committing a felony could earn back their right to vote upon completing all the terms of their sentence, including probation. However, about half a year later, Governor Ron DeSantis argued the law needed to be clarified to explain exactly what terms were necessary. DeSantis changed the law to include a requirement that one must also pay off all court-related debts before being able to vote.
What is a Poll Tax?
Critics of the payment requirement have compared this to a poll tax. A poll tax is a tax imposed on every individual regardless of personal circumstance or income. Essentially, those that opposed this move believe it discriminated against the lower socioeconomic class. It basically punished those who could not afford to pay their court debts, no matter the reason.
What does the 24th Amendment Have to do With This?
U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle determined in late May that this requirement was unconstitutional. He argued it violated the 24th Amendment, which clearly states the right to vote should not be withheld from someone because of their inability to pay a poll tax. Hinkle explained, “A state may disenfranchise felons and impose conditions on their reenfranchisement, but the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny. Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed system, this one falls short in substantial respects." He went on to say the state has the right to “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 or on payment of taxes, even those labeled fees or costs." In addition to this change, the judge calls into question Florida's lack of protocol for helping individuals understand what they owe the state. He has called for a new process in place in which one can request an advisory opinion on whether or not he or she is able to vote, regardless of debt. If the individual does not receive any feedback within three weeks from the division of elections, then this person would be allowed to vote.
How Has Poor Record-Keeping Caused Problems?
Daniel Smith, a professor at the University of Florida, has analyzed the data and come to the conclusion that about 82% of those with felony convictions have not been able to pay off their debts. The problem is not only due to a lack of funds, but also a lack of organization on the state's end. Smith claims it is basically impossible to figure out exactly how many people with felony convictions in Florida owe a debt “because of sloppy, decentralized record-keeping from the state”. Several in this situation have said they cannot get clear answers on how much they owe. The state has had no official way of routinely checking for updated debts owed or maintaining and tracking payments as they are made. This is obviously problematic when you try to impose a rule that requires debts to be paid off first, but you have no system to prove the debts still exist in the first place. Toshia Brown, Florida's chief of voter registration, said in a deposition, “I don't know where you go, a one-stop shop, to get something that says you've paid all your fines and fees. I don't know how they would be able to get that information." If someone is not allowed to vote because of debts, but the state cannot tell you what those debts are, then that person's hands are unfairly tied. Therein lies a major problem in addition to the issue of simply not having the money to pay in the first place.
What Could This Mean for Florida Now?
There are currently around 774,000 people in Florida that have completed the terms of their sentences but are still bound by debt. As these individuals become eligible to vote, Florida will see a massive increase in voters if they all turn out for the election this fall. To put numbers into perspective, the last election was won in Florida by a difference of about 115,000 votes in 2016. If the anticipated number of voters really shows up in November, it could lead us to an interesting race.
What Are Your Next Steps if This is Your Situation?
If you or a loved one have been convicted of a felony and have completed all the terms of your sentence, it is time to get back your right to vote. Contact a trust lawyer at Keller, Melchiorre, and Walsh today to discuss the terms of your situation so that we can help you move on to the next chapter of your life.