Background: Beginning in 1838, Florida’s constitution allowed the legislature to disenfranchise felons. Effective January 8, 2019, Amendment 4 of the Florida constitution added a provision automatically restoring the voting rights of felons upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation. That same year, the legislature passed SB7066 which defines the language ‘all terms of sentence’ to include financial obligations included in the sentence and further clarified that these financial obligations must be paid for the person to be eligible to vote, even if the sentencing court converts them to a civil lien.
This case consolidates the cases of 17 individuals, each with at least one felony conviction, who have completed all prison or jail terms and all terms of supervision, and whose right to vote under Amendment 4 and SB7066 hinges on the payment of LFOs. The plaintiffs assert that the requirement to pay to vote is unconstitutional as applied to those who are unable to pay the amount at issue.
The District Court issued a preliminary injunction requiring the state to register the named plaintiffs. On appeal, the 11th Circuit ruled that the State cannot condition voting on the payment of an amount a person is genuinely unable to pay and upheld the injunction.
The Court held a virtual bench trial and issued its decision on May 24, 2020. The Court held that the State can condition voting on the 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 the payment of taxes, even those labeled fees or costs.
Holding: When a state decides to restore the right to vote to some felons but not others, the state must comply with the United States Constitution, including the First, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments. Florida’s pay-to-vote system, as applied to those unable to pay, is subject to heightened scrutiny because it punishes more harshly solely on account of wealth by withholding access to voting. Heightened scrutiny requires an analysis of the legitimate governmental interests served by the provision. The State identified the interest in re-enfranchising only those felons who have completed their sentences as its sole legitimate interest. The State went further in its appeal identifying additional interests served by the pay-to-vote system including: punishment, enforcing its laws, debt collection, and administrative convenience. The court holds that the pay-to-vote system does not survive heightened or rational basis scrutiny and plaintiffs are entitled to prevail on their claim that they cannot be denied the right to vote based on failure to pay amounts they are genuinely unable to pay.
The court also applies a rational-basis scrutiny standard to the system as applied to those able to pay. If the question was whether the LFO requirement was rational as applied to those unable to pay, it would not pass because Florida’s disenfranchisement of these plaintiffs is not rationally related to any legitimate governmental interest. The State’s justifications for the pay-to-vote system: that a felon should be required to satisfy the felon’s entire criminal sentence before being allowed to vote; that the system provides an incentive to pay the amounts at issue; and that the state should be able to pursue the first two goals efficiently, do not justify requiring payment from those unable to pay. The court concludes that the system survives rational-basis scrutiny, only as applied to those who are able to pay.
The court also concludes that fees, not fines or restitution, are taxes because they are assessed regardless of whether a defendant is adjudged guilty, they bear no relation to culpability, and they are assessed for the sole or primary purpose of raising revenue to pay for government operations. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment precludes Florida from conditioning voting in federal elections on payment of these fees and costs. Because the Supreme Court has held that what the Twenty-Fourth Amendment prescribes for federal elections, the Equal Protection Clause requires for state elections, Florida also cannot condition voting in state elections on payment of these fees and costs.
The court finds no evidence that SB7066 was motivated by race and similarly, the court finds no evidence of gender bias or reason to believe gender had anything to do with the adoption of Amendment 4, the enactment of SB7066, or the State’s implementation of this system.
The court holds that a state does not violate the Excessive Fines Clause by refusing to re-enfranchise a felon who chooses not to pay a fine that the felon has the financial ability to pay and concludes that, if implemented in a timely manner with adequate, intelligible notice, the advisory-opinion procedure and attendant immunity will satisfy due process.
With respect to implementation, the Court finds that any person who was represented by a Public Defender is presumptively unable to pay their financial obligations. The court allows the Division to rebut that presumption with reliable information, but if it does not, the Division of Elections must register the person. In other cases, the order requires the Division of Elections to provide an advisory opinion to individuals who are unsure of their eligibility status that sets out the amount of their unpaid financial obligations within days. . The injunction also prescribes a method for determining ability to pay which provides a rebuttable presumption based on facts that are objectively determinable without undue difficulty and that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, correlate with genuine inability to pay. When the presumption applies, the injunction requires reliable information to rebut it. The injunction allows individuals to vote if they are otherwise eligible but have LFOs they are unable to pay.
You can access the full opinion here.