Editorial: Quit fighting, Gov. DeSantis. Accept courts' wisdom and let Florida's felons vote

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Protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse in Tallahassee on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, while a federal judge heard arguments for and against the Legislature's bill implementing Amendment 4. - Lawrence Mower/Tampa Bay Times/TNS

Considering that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a Harvard-educated lawyer, it’s taking him much too long to grasp a resoundingly clear message from the courts on a key voting rights issue.

A state law that requires felons to pay all costs before they can vote, without regard for their ability to pay, violates the U.S. Constitution. It’s an obvious injustice. So after yet another legal defeat, governor, do the right thing. Let people vote and quit wasting Florida taxpayers’ money.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued the latest decision in Tallahassee, Fla., on Sunday. In an exhaustive 125-page ruling, Hinkle sought to lift a dark cloud of uncertainty over an estimated 1 million felons and clear the way for them to become full citizens in time for the 2020 election.

Florida’s “pay-to-vote system,” as Hinkle called it, is unconstitutional under the 24th Amendment that bars imposition of a poll tax “or any other tax” as a condition to voting. The idea is “repugnant,” Hinkle wrote, comparing it to being denied the right to vote because of unpaid property taxes. Hinkle’s three-syllable phrase, “pay-to-vote,” as damning as it is succinct, appears 62 times in his decision, lest the governor or anyone else fail to grasp its significance.

“I find as a fact that the overwhelming majority of felons who have not paid their LFOs (legal financial obligations) in full, but who are otherwise eligible to vote, are genuinely unable to pay the required amount, and thus, under Florida’s pay-to-vote system, will be barred from voting solely because they lack sufficient funds,” Hinkle wrote.

This should be a cause for celebration. Not more litigation at our expense.

As the state weighs its options, an appeal would only invite more suspicion that in a presidential election year, the state has crass partisan motivations, such as trying to manipulate the pool of eligible voters to help Republicans. A disproportionate number of felons are African-Americans who would overwhelmingly vote Democratic — that is, if they could vote.

About 6 million Americans were permanently barred from voting in the 2016 presidential election because of felony convictions, and far more were from Florida than any other state. The voters changed that in 2018 when they overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 and restored the right to vote to felons who have completed “all terms” of their sentences. Felons convicted of murder or sex crimes were excluded.

The 2019 Legislature passed a law, SB 7066, that defined “all terms” to include all court costs, fines, fees and restitution. It passed on party-line votes, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats no. The League of Women Voters, ACLU, NAACP, and Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law immediately challenged the law’s constitutionality.

Hinkle issued an injunction against the state last October, but it applied only to the 17 original named plaintiffs with felony records, including Jeff Gruver of Gainesville, who works at an Alachua County homeless shelter and still owed $801 that he said he could not afford to pay.

The state appealed that decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which sided with Hinkle and refused the state’s request for a full-court en banc hearing.

A full trial, held remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, ended May 6 and led to a surprisingly quick Memorial Day weekend decision by Hinkle, also a Harvard Law grad. Another state appeal would send the case back to the 11th Circuit, and another rejection could then raise the possibility of U.S. Supreme Court intervention.

The Florida system “is irrational as a whole,” Hinkle wrote, and the bureaucratic maze that felons must confront to determine outstanding costs is an “administrative train wreck.” In a finding that should disgust every Floridian, Hinkle said the state’s post-Amendment 4 voter registration form, with multiple confusing questions, violates the National Voter Registration Act.

If there’s an unsung hero in this long saga, it’s Dr. Daniel Smith, chairman of the political science department at the University of Florida. He took on the frustrating challenge of tracking down the unpaid obligations in all 67 counties and in so doing revealed a badly flawed system that’s really no system at all. It’s an embarrassment to Floridians.

The judge found that the state Division of Elections is woefully incapable of processing a backlog of 85,000 pending voter registration forms from felons and that the Legislature has not provided more resources.

“The state has shown a staggering inability to administer the pay-to-vote system,” the judge wrote.

Testifying for the plaintiffs as an expert witness, Smith said more than three-fourths of the estimated 1 million Floridians with felony convictions have unpaid financial obligations, and that more than 80% of them can’t afford to pay.

“I credit Dr. Smith’s testimony in full,” Hinkle added in a footnote.

Nearly two-thirds of Florida voters approved Amendment 4 that in 2018 restored voting rights to most felons. Due to uncertainty and fear of prosecution, many have not registered. The first of two upcoming statewide elections is Aug. 18 and the deadline to register to vote is July 20, less than two months away.

Election preparations across Florida will be much more challenging because of the pandemic and its restrictions on crowds and social contacts. The state should not make things worse with another appeal. The time has come to accept the courts’ judgment and let people vote.

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©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)