TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A federal judge in Tallahassee has ruled against the state law requiring convicted felons to pay fines and legal financial obligations before they are eligible to vote again, calling it an unconstitutional “pay to vote” system.
This decision being celebrated by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has major implications ahead of the 2020 presidential election in November.
“As the leaders of Amendment 4, we are looking forward to utilizing this court ruling to expand on our registration efforts to create a more inclusive democracy, make voting exciting again, and to coalesce the voices of returning citizens to create a more just and equitable justice system,” FRRC Executive Director Desmond Meade said.
According to the FRRC, the outcome of the nation’s “first fully virtual civil rights trial” creates a path to vote for hundreds of thousands of citizens in Florida.
“Anybody who has the stigma of prison on their record, it’s hard,” Eugene Williams said.
Williams told 8 On Your Side he spent 18 years in the Florida Department of Corrections prison system.
“I got out December 25, 2011,” he said, “the greatest Christmas gift I could ever have.”
The 44-year-old from Tampa has never cast a ballot.
“I know there’s many people out there like me that has never voted who screwed up with the law. you know, and didn’t have the chance to have their voice heard,” Williams said
Nearly two thirds of Florida’s voters in 2018 approved Amendment 4, which aimed to restore voting rights for disenfranchised former felons at the completion of their sentence.
The Republican-led Legislature passed a law stipulating that legal financial obligations must be paid as part of the sentence, in addition to serving any prison time.
“We now lead the nation in terms of people with past felony convictions who are waiting and hoping to vote in upcoming elections,” FRRC Deputy Director Neil Volz told 8 On Your Side.
In his 125 page decision released Sunday, Judge Robert Hinkle said the state cannot stop ex-felons from voting because they cannot afford or are unable to find out how much they owe in court fees, fines and restitution to victims.
“This ruling is really a game changer for so many people in the State of Florida when you cut through the legal jargon and the litigation,” Volz said. “At the end of the day, this is about people, people whose voices can be heard in the election process.”
State Attorney Andrew Warren told 8 On Your Side for several months Hillsborough County Judges have already been reviewing cases of convicted felons and the fees they might owe.
“We are way ahead of the curve in having a system set up in Hillsborough County to have a judge determine whether someone can’t afford to pay what they owe and therefore they’re allowed to vote,” Warren said. “That’s the way we’re ensuring that we don’t have wealth based voter discrimination.”
With a balance of about $4,000, Williams said he is excited about what the judge’s decision means for him and so many citizens returning to society after time served.
“I wish I knew who this judge was,” he said. “I’d give him a hug, because again, althought we are disenfranchised we are still your neighbors.”
Judge Hinkle said he does expect the state to appeal his decision.
8 On Your Side reached out to the office of Governor Ron DeSantis for comment about the court ruling, but has not yet heard back.
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