Court Strikes Down Florida Poll Tax as Unconstitutional in Landmark Victory for Voting Rights
Decision applies to hundreds of thousands of Floridians who were denied the right to vote under a state law enacted in 2019 conditioning voting rights on repayment of costs and fees
TALLAHASSEE, FL – Today, a federal court blocked a Florida law that would have denied hundreds of thousands of voters the ability to participate in the 2020 election, striking it down as unconstitutional. Campaign Legal Center (CLC) sued last year on behalf of three individual plaintiffs and a class of all affected Florida citizens. This win for CLC’s clients and the plaintiff class is historic. For the first time, a federal court ruled that conditioning rights restoration on the payment of costs and fees constitutes a poll tax.
CLC’s suit – the only one brought as a class action – ensured that today’s ruling applies broadly to all voters seeking voting rights restoration in Florida. Before class certification was granted in April of this year, the state of Florida refused to apply previous decisions by the district court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals beyond the individual plaintiffs in the case.
“Today’s decision is a landmark victory for hundreds of thousands of voters who want their voices to be heard,” said Paul Smith, vice president of CLC. “This is a watershed moment in election law. States can no longer deny people access to the ballot box based on unpaid court costs and fees, nor can they condition rights restoration on restitution and fines that a person cannot afford to pay.”
Nearly 774,000 citizens were denied the right to vote despite having completed their sentences, because they owed legal financial obligations. Almost 80% of the people who have outstanding legal financial obligations in Florida owe at least $500 in legal fees, according to a study by University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith, who testified at trial.
The court held an eight-day trial by videoconference in the case from April 27 to May 6 and featuring CLC attorneys Mark Gaber and Danielle Lang, who highlighted the challenges that Floridians face in attempting – often unsuccessfully – to determine whether they had outstanding legal financial obligations and if so, how much they owed, and how much they needed to pay in order to vote. Witnesses revealed the extent to which the state’s confusing administrative system discouraged voters from getting their rights restored, and how its recordkeeping system was riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Public defenders from several Florida counties also testified during trial that the vast majority of people convicted of felonies can’t afford to pay court-ordered costs and fees. The Florida Division of Elections has a backlog of at least 85,000 cases of people waiting to hear if they are eligible to vote, and the department can handle only 57 cases per day. At its current pace, it would take the state well over six years to make eligibility determinations for all of the voters currently in the backlog - resulting in untold missed elections for countless Florida voters.
These issues and more were addressed today by Judge Robert Hinkle for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. First, the court ruled that the state may not require payment of costs and fees assessed as part of a criminal sentence as a condition for voting. Second, the court ruled that the state cannot deny people the right to vote because of unpaid fines or restitution if they are genuinely unable to pay them. The opinion directed the state to follow a process to ensure that individuals who cannot pay their legal financial obligations are not denied the right to vote, including by presuming that those who were appointed a public defender or previously found to be indigent can register and vote unless the State has evidence of current ability to pay. To determine the amount one owes, the Court ordered the State to allow potential voters to request an advisory opinion in hard copy or online and the state must respond within 21 days saying how much that person owes in fines and restitution to determine eligibility. At trial, Judge Hinkle scolded the state for its failure to develop its own process after two federal courts ordered it to do so.
Florida holds primary elections on August 18, and the deadline to register for the primary is July 20.