William Freeman, 51, poses for a photograph outside of his polling station, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Riviera Beach, Fla. Freeman recently registered to vote after serving three years for grand theft.
( AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Tanzina Vega: Last week a federal appeals court issued a decision that could block hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people from voting in Florida. The move was the latest in a series of back and forth actions affecting voting rights for people with felony records in the state. At the center of the court's decision was a law that passed last year by Florida's Republican-led state legislature which required people with felony records to pay off any outstanding fines connected to their cases before they could register to vote.
In May, a US district judge deemed this law to be a form of a poll tax and therefore deemed it unconstitutional under the 24th amendment. Governor Ron DeSantis quickly appealed that decision and now the US Court of Appeals for the 11th circuit has overturned the district judges ruling. Eugene Williams was released from prison in 2011 after serving 18 years in Florida's department of corrections. He now works for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. I talked to him in June, after the district judge called the law unconstitutional.
Eugene Williams: This pay to vote situation Mr. DeSantis got going or had going on, it was like he was suppressing us. I am a living witness that people can be rehabilitated. I think that it would be more purposeful if they would just get on board and start granting us these rights to vote because it gives us purpose. I tell people all the time, just remember no matter what we are disenfranchised we're still your neighbors, whether a guy is sitting on the corner, at the corner store we're still there. Why not offer some incentives to make us more productive in life, instead of keeping us oppressed. We're based on second chances.
Tanzina: Joining me now is Lawrence Mower, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau. Lawrence, thanks for being with me.
Lawrence Mower: Thank you for having me on.
Tanzina: Where do voting rights for people with felony records stand after the appeals court decision? Is this now a final decision?
Lawrence: It's unlikely to be a final decision. It's likely that this will be appealed to the US Supreme Court, which has the next step. As of right now, people with felony convictions who owe fines, fees, or restitution will not be allowed to vote ahead of the November election.
Tanzina: Lawrence, how did the appeals court vote? I mean, this feels very much like it may have been split down ideological lines. Was that your sense of the decision as well?
Lawrence: It did split down between judges who were appointed by Republicans and judges who were appointed by Democrats, six to four. It very much was obviously a partisan divide. The liberal judges said that this is not a case that will go down well in history. It's something that this has been a partisan battle for the last 18 months since amendment four passed in Florida and since it went through the legislature. This was something that has been primarily Republican driven.
Tanzina: We should note here that, if you could remind our listeners because this has been so much of a back and forth, amendment four passed with the majority of Floridians supporting this measure, did it not?
Lawrence: Almost two-thirds of Floridians, yes. More Floridians voted for amendment four than voted for either, Senator Rick Scott or Governor Ron DeSantis.
Tanzina: Lawrence, what does that tell us? I mean, if Floridians themselves voted to allow people with felony records to the right to vote without having to pay fees and fines is the legislature essentially silencing the will of Floridians generally?
Lawrence: That's the question. Amendment four said that people with felony convictions could have their rights restored if they paid off or they satisfied all terms of their sentence and there's been varying definitions of what all terms means. The backers, the creators of amendment four did say that all terms included all financial costs, all court fees, all court fines, which are usually $10,000 and above punishments often, in restitution to victims.
However, after that passed I think a lot of people realized that, "Oh my gosh, all the terms might actually include all these financial penalties," which frankly a lot of Floridians were not familiar with. Most Floridians are familiar with a term of sentence, parole, probation, and incarceration. The fact that these fines and fees might be included in here I think came as a surprise to a lot of people who voted for amendment four. As the 11th circuit said, all terms means all terms.
Tanzina: Prior to the 11th circuit's decision, this was something a prior judge had called this poll tax, if you will, how do you explain a poll tax? I mean, isn't that illegal?
Lawrence: A poll tax is illegal as the US Supreme Court has ruled. The earlier judges ruling had really said, one part of these financial obligations are a poll tax and that is he's talking just about the court fees. In 1998, Floridians passed a constitutional amendment of their own that allowed courts to impose all kinds of fees onto people as a way to shift the cost burden of the court system. For example, you have a $100 public defender fee.
If you're appointed a public defender, you have a $100 cost of conviction fee if you were prosecuted in a felony case. These are costs that do directly go to pay for the criminal justice system. Some of these fees go into the state's General Revenue Fund, which goes to pay for a variety of services. He said, specifically these are attacks in any other name and what the 11th circuit said, the majority opinion said is that, "Well, yes, these go to pay for government."
They cited past Supreme Court ruling saying that if basically a tax is a penalty, which they're saying that these fees amount to penalties they don't count as a tax. They don't count as a poll tax the dissenting opinion, the four judges who were appointed by Democrats said no. What the Supreme Court really says is that what's the primary purpose of these things. If it's the primary purpose is as a revenue-raising source, which clearly this is, the Supreme Court has said that these are attacks. It was far from settled, but the issue of whether or not these things amount to attacks has been one of the primary arguments.
Tanzina: Lawrence, which population, who makes up the majority of the people who were be affected by this, in terms of race and social class. Are we talking largely about Black and brown Floridians? Are we talking about poor Floridians?
Lawrence: Poor Floridians, absolutely. The overall prison population is more white than any other ethnicity, but it's no secret that Black Floridians are the ones primarily affected by this because they are the ones who are disproportionately members of the criminal justice system. People who get prosecuted and incarcerated. They are absolutely hit harder than other groups of people here.
Tanzina: A spokesperson for Governor DeSantis released a statement after the appeals court decision saying, "There are multiple avenues to restore rights, pay off debts, and seek financial forgiveness from one's victims. Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive." Lawrence, how does what the governor's office say differ from what people with felony records and activists have to say?
Lawrence: In quite a few ways, there's been a question of, "Okay, you have to pay off all your financial obligations, but when do the financial obligations end?" According to the courts, most people can't afford to pay off these amounts upon release from prison or probation. When that happens, these things are usually converted to civil liens that are sent out to debt collectors. These things can dog people for a long time, for years and years and years, if they're ever paid off. Senate Bill 7066, which DeSantis himself pushed for did allow people with felony convictions to go to a judge to get their monies converted community service hours, or to have them waived altogether.
That's not even an adequate solution because not even the state made that argument seriously in front of the federal judges in this case, as that being an adequate solution just because in most counties, there is no such process to go petition a judge to have your amounts converted to community service hours. Even if they were converted to community service hours, you're talking on the order of hundreds and hundreds of hours you would have to spend on community service. Hours that people with felony convictions who are trying to find jobs usually don't have time to do. It's a completely unrealistic option for most people.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about the election that is on the horizon in less than two months, we're talking about one of the most significant elections. Of course, Florida, as we know is a key battleground state that has been for many elections prior, this decision will essentially leave the close to 700,000, 800,000 Floridians disenfranchised from being able to cast their vote. What effect could that have on the Florida vote come November?
Lawrence: Realistically, there wasn't a lot of time. There's the deadline to register for November is October 5th. There wasn't a lot of time for these people to register anyway. The whole court case and the back and forth over who's eligible and who's not has absolutely had a chilling effect on those people from registering in the first place. Because if you do register and you do vote and you owe money, you do face a chance of being potentially prosecuted for it. It's probably unlikely, but that chance still exists. The number of people that we're talking about here around 800,000 or so, we're not a particularly high turnout group of voters anyway. People with felony convictions are typically not high turnout voters.
Tanzina: Given what's been happening in the country that could have changed this year.
Lawrence: As we know in Florida, these elections can be really close. There were two recounts for the two highest races, just in 2018, on the order of 11,000 to 70,000 votes or so. That's how close some of these races are. Could it have an effect? Potentially, yes. We don't really know.
Tanzina: Lawrence Mower is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau. Lawrence thank you so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.