Florida Gov. DeSantis appeals judge's ruling on felon voting rights

Nearly a month after a federal judge gave a partial victory to felons seeking restoration of voting rights, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration Friday appealed the ruling and said plaintiffs are trying to “rewrite” the intent of a constitutional amendment passed last year.

DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee jointly appealed the Oct. 18 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeal was the latest chapter in months of legal and political battling about carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment designed to restore the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences. The key part of the battle centers on whether felons have to pay legal financial obligations, such as restitution, fines and fees, to get their rights restored.

In his ruling last month, Hinkle wrote that Florida cannot deny the right to vote to felons who have served their sentences and are “genuinely unable” to pay legal financial obligations. He issued a preliminary injunction, however, that applied only to 17 plaintiffs in the case --- and not more broadly to other felons who might be affected.

DeSantis and Lee filed a notice of appeal Friday that, as is common, does not detail the arguments they will make at the Atlanta-based appeals court.

Plaintiffs have likened a state law passed this spring and signed by DeSantis to a “poll tax” because of its requirements for felons to pay financial obligations before being able to vote. The law was written to carry out the constitutional amendment.

Republican lawmakers, however, have pointed to wording in the constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that said rights would be restored to felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The lawmakers say all terms include paying financial obligations.

After the appeal was filed Friday, DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre issued a statement that cited the approaching 2020 elections and said the governor “understands that protecting the integrity of our elections system is paramount and believes Floridians deserve greater clarification regarding the implementation of Amendment 4.”

“The plaintiffs in this case are attempting to use the court process to rewrite the scope and original intent of the amendment passed by Florida voters in 2018,” she said. “Appealing this order will provide quicker finality and certainty, allowing enough time to implement any protections and procedures for the restoration of voting rights prior to the November general election.”

Civil-rights and voting-rights organizations filed challenges after the Legislature passed the law to carry out the constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments this month in a separate case in which DeSantis asked for an advisory opinion about whether the constitutional amendment’s requirements include “the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations  --- namely fees, fines and restitution ordered by the court as part of a felony sentence that would otherwise render a convicted felon ineligible to vote.”

The Supreme Court case remains pending.

Hinkle’s ruling last month was relatively limited in that it only applied to the plaintiffs in the case. The injunction said that the secretary of state and county supervisors of elections could not prevent the plaintiffs from registering to vote or voting if the elections’ officials actions are “based only on failure to pay a financial obligation that the plaintiff shows the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay.”

But Hinkle pointed to a broader need for state officials to come up with an administrative process in which felons could try to prove that they are unable to pay financial obligations and should be able to vote.

“(The) state can condition restoration of a felon’s right to vote on payment of fines and restitution the felon is able to pay,” Hinkle wrote. “When a felon claims inability to pay, the state need not just take the felon’s word for it. The state may properly place the burden of establishing inability to pay on the felon and, to that end, may put in place an appropriate administrative process. That this places a greater burden on the felon claiming inability to pay than on felons with no unpaid obligations is unavoidable and not improper.”