Supreme Court Keeps Florida Law Requiring Felons to Pay Fees Before Voting

July 16, 2020 Updated: July 18, 2020

The Supreme Court on Thursday kept in place a Florida law that requires felons to pay fees before they vote.

“This Court’s order prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor,” Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote (pdf). Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan dissented with the majority’s opinion.

She described the mandate as a “voter paywall,” while adding that the Supreme Court’s “inaction continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement.”

The move will prevent some voters from registering in Florida’s August primary and possibly in the November election.

Lawyers for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis had argued that Florida would be “irreparably harmed” if a “patently erroneous injunction is reinstated, enabling hundreds of thousands of ineligible voters to take part in the upcoming elections, one of which is only a month away,” according to TampaBay.com.

The case involved a 2018 initiative where voters ended the permanent disenfranchisement of felons who have completed their sentences. Many other states have similar measures.

Up until that year, convicted felons were not allowed to vote in Florida at all. DeSantis then signed a bill, which included the provision that formerly incarcerated people must also pay their legal financial obligations such as restitution to victims, court fees, and fines. The Republican-controlled legislature enacted the provision that included the payment of restitution, fees, costs, and fines.

Access to Florida’s ballot box has been at the center of myriad legal disputes, underscoring the important role the state plays in determining the balance of power not only in Florida but also in Washington. With thin margins often deciding key races, the outcome of the legal battle could have deep ramifications because the state’s estimated 774,000 disenfranchised felons represent a significant bloc, according to an analysis from The Associated Press.

Many of the state’s felons are black and presumably Democrats.

The left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center, along with other organizations representing felons, asked Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas earlier in the month to set aside the stay.

“With impending registration deadlines and a primary to be held next month, the urgency is ratcheted up,” said Nancy Abudu, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, according to The Associated Press. “We are asking the Supreme Court to maintain the district court’s order which set clear, direct guidelines for the state and counties to follow after months of delay on the state’s part, so that all eligible Floridians can cast a ballot in the 2020 elections.”

Judge Robert L. Hinkle, of the Federal District Court in Tallahassee, had issued a preliminary injunction before a three-judge panel at the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit echoed his ruling.

“The State of Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money,” Hinkle wrote. “Most of the citizens lack the financial resources to make the required payment. Many do not know, and some will not be able to find out, how much they must pay.” He argued that it is a “pay-to-vote system.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.