Policy Summary: The Twenty – Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides in Section One:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
On November 6, 2018 voters in the State of Florida approved the ballot initiative known as Amendment 4. The initiative would permit Florida felons to be restored with the right to vote after they had completed all the terms of their sentence. Florida voters approved Amendment 4 overwhelmingly with 64.55% voting in favor while 35.45% voted against the measure. In 2019, due to Republican opposition to Amendment 4, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that added an additional requirement before the right to vote was restored. SB 7066 required that felons must also pay all fines and fees associated with their sentence.
The battle then moved to the court system. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the law was constitutional. However, another suit was brought in federal district court in Florida which ruled that the additional requirements of SB 7066 violated the U.S. Constitution and therefore the court issued an injunction blocking implementation of SB 7066. That ruling was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which just ruled to uphold the injunction of the law issued by the federal district court. LEARN MORE
Policy Analysis: While this decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is a win for voting rights advocates it is certainly not the end of the case. The injunction initially issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle was only an order to prevent the law from going into effect until the issue can be decided on the merits at a full trial. With the injunction upheld by the appeals court the law remains frozen pending the non – jury trial that had been scheduled.
Additionally, Governor De Santis’ has indicated that he was disappointed with the ruling and intends to appeal the decision. An appeal would likely take several months to be resolved and might not be resolved in time for the November 2020 elections. However, a number of academics have calculated that the number of felons who would have their voting rights restored is 1.4 million which can certainly sway an election or an initiative on the ballot. This explains why both parties are going to extreme lengths to fight for the future of this issue. Republicans had initially opposed Amendment 4 and suffered an unexpected defeat when voters overwhelmingly approved it. In turn, Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to oppose the popular will of voters by adding additional requirements that would blunt the move to add 1.4 million more voters to the state rolls. And if the case moves up through the appeals process and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court that will also likely bring up the constitutional poll tax issue which was outlawed with the 24th Amendment in 1964. The stakes are certainly high and while many would have liked to have had this issue resolved in time for the November 2020 elections it seems up in the air whether 1.4 million former felons in Florida will have their voting rights restored by the end of the year. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
Update: On July 16, 2020 the Supreme Court of the United States issued an order in the case Raysor v. De Santis. After a long, complex and winding road through the Florida judiciary and then the federal judiciary the case reached the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The federal district court had issued a permanent injunction barring full implementation of the law and with a number of remedies crafted by the trial court. Judge Robert Hinkle allowed felons to rebut the presumption that they were unable to pay as determined by the State, allowed felons to seek how much they owed in order to vote (this was likely a rebuke to Florida due to the state’s admission at trial that they did not keep accurate records nor had a workable database as to what felons owe the state in terms of fines and fees) and ordered the state to let felons register to vote without being prosecuted for a violation of the law. But when the case was appealed the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued an order without an opinion that did not allow the remedies from the trial court to go into effect. That move essentially did not permit felons to have their voting rights restored, for the moment. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the Eleventh Circuit court order which in effect leaves 1.4 million Florida felons without the right to cast a ballot in upcoming state and federal elections in Florida for the foreseeable future. The case will proceed on the merits at a later date but the emergency application to have the law reinstated immediately has been denied.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissent to the Supreme Court order and she brings up the Purcell Principle, which has played a leading role in a number of Supreme Court decisions regarding voting rights this term. The Purcell Principle, which comes from the 2006 Supreme Court case Purcell v. Gonzalez, cautions against making voting changes so close to election day in order to not confuse and burden voters who might not be up to date on the new changes. As Justice Sotomayor sees it, by blocking the law from going into effect the court is creating more confusion for felons as they now cannot rely on a law to figure out whether they are eligible to vote. If the goal is to create a stable voting atmosphere devoid of last minute voting rules changes, then why did the Supreme Court choose a path that makes a number of last minute voting changes that causes a felon to be unsure whether they are eligible to vote or not? Justice Sotomayor’s dissent is a pointed rebuke to the reasoning and rationale the Court has charted this term with regard to voting rights. It as a disappointing moment for the issue of vote restoration for felons but the case still remains to be played out as a hearing on the merits of the issue (as well as the application of the Twenty – Fourth Amendment) is scheduled for August 2020 in the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
Update # 2: The current poll tax situation and the restoration of the right to vote to Florida felons has had a long and convoluted procedural history through both the Florida and federal court systems but it looks like a definitive answer has been issued from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Eleventh Circuit issued on September 11, 2020 its opinion in Jones v. Governor of Florida and the appeals court sided with the Republican Governor and Republican lawmakers in the state in a 6 – 4 decision.
In the case the court interpreted the term “all terms of a sentence” to include not just serving the complete term of incarceration but all other requirements that were imposed as part of the sentence. This includes any outstanding fees, fines and other financial obligations that could still be outstanding even though the person may have completed a prison sentence. The majority opinion addressed the issue of Florida’s requirements and if it could be consistent with the U.S. Constitution’s Twenty – Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against poll taxes as a requirement to vote. Chief Judge William Pryor wrote that the financial obligations required in Florida’s laws does not violate the Twenty – Fourth Amendment because the fines and fees in this case are not a “tax.” The key distinction Chief Judge Pryor made was that the court costs and fees are penalties for actions undertaken by the defendant and so are properly classified as a penalty rather than a tax. While this is a significant legal point the majority opinion struggles to address a significant feature of this entire saga – that the ballot initiative to restore voting to rights to felons was overwhelmingly approved by Florida voters by a nearly two to one (2 – 1) margin. The only reason Amendment 4 was challenged in the Florida and federal courts was because Republican lawmakers in the state wanted to suppress the nearly 1,000,000 votes that were not likely to vote Republican. With a history of razor thin margins in elections, having nearly 1,000,000 new voters could have tipped the upcoming 2020 elections further to the left. Now, because of their political considerations and their decision to ignore the will of the Florida electorate Republicans with this disappointing Circuit Court of Appeals decision have succeeded in suppressing a significant number of votes for the 2020 election. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
- Brennan Center for Justice – non – profit group’s Voting Rights Restoration project.
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – statement on appeals court decision regarding voter restoration to felons in Florida.
- More Than A Vote – non – profit group fighting against Black voter suppression and raising money to pay for fees and fines that felons are unable to pay for themselves.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.