Florida can continue to block people with felony convictions from voting until they have repaid all fines and fees they owe, the US supreme court said on Thursday, a major decision that makes it less likely that nearly three-quarters of a million Floridians will get to vote in November.
The decision came at a preliminary stage of one of the most closely watched voting rights lawsuits in the US, over amendment 4, a measure Florida voters overwhelmingly approved in 2018 that allows people to vote once they complete their felony sentences, a change that was estimated to affect 1.4 million people.
The amendment was a landmark expansion of voting rights, but since it passed Florida Republicans have made a concerted effort to slow it down. State officials offered no guidance on how to implement it and then state lawmakers passed a law that required those with felony convictions to repay any debts assessed as part of their sentence before they could vote again. There are more than 774,000 people in Florida who cannot vote because they owe money and the state has no centralized way to inform people of how much they owe. Many people with felonies also simply can never afford to repay the insurmountable debt they accumulate with their court sentences.
In late May, the US district judge Robert Hinkle struck down the Republican-authored law, which has has been widely denounced as a kind of poll tax and was seen as an effort to undercut the amendment and make it more difficult and confusing for people to get their voting rights back.
Lawyers representing Florida appealed against the ruling and in late May the US court of appeals blocked the lower court’s ruling while the appeal was pending. The plaintiffs in the case filed an emergency request with the US supreme court to let Hinkle’s ruling go into effect so the people affected could vote in a primary election in the state this summer. The supreme court declined to do so on Thursday, meaning Hinkle’s ruling will not be in effect while the 11th circuit considers the appeal (it is currently scheduled to hear the case on 18 August).
The supreme court did not offer an explanation for its ruling on Thursday, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – authored a scathing dissent. “This court’s order prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they are poor,” Sotomayor wrote.
The supreme court will probably have the final say in the case, but Thursday’s decision makes it less likely there will be a resolution for the affected voters ahead of the November presidential election, where Florida is a key battleground state.
At least 85,000 people with felonies have registered since amendment 4 went into effect and Sotomayor noted those people were now in legal jeopardy, unlikely to learn about the change in their voting eligibility because of the 11th circuit’s decision, but facing potential criminal prosecution if they voted.
“This is a deeply disappointing decision,” said Paul Smith, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, who helped represent some of the plaintiffs. “The supreme court stood by as the 11th circuit prevented hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”
Sotomayor also called out the supreme court for its willingness to uphold voting restrictions in a number of cases over the last several months. The court shortened the deadline to return absentee ballots in Wisconsin and backed restrictions on voting by mail in Texas and Alabama. Only in the Wisconsin case has the court offered any reasoning for its thinking, relying on a 2006 case, Purcell v Gonzalez, that says courts should not interfere with election rules on the eve of an election.
“This court’s inaction continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement. Ironically, this court has wielded Purcell as a reason to forbid courts to make voting safer during a pandemic,” she wrote. “Now, faced with an appellate court stay that disrupts a legal status quo and risks immense disfranchisement – a situation that Purcell sought to avoid – the court balks.”