TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge urged voter advocates and Florida officials Tuesday to resolve their dispute over the rights of felons to regain the vote, as he decides whether to temporarily block a state law requiring ex-prisoners to settle outstanding fines and other legal obligations before their access to the ballot box is restored.
After hearing testimony and arguments over two days, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the law created an "administrative nightmare." It was enacted despite a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters last fall that restored the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete their sentences.
With Florida's record as a key political battleground, the case's outcome — and the outcomes of other Florida voting rights disputes — will attract widespread interest as the nation gears up for the 2020 presidential elections.
Throughout the proceedings, Hinkle appeared sympathetic to thousands of former prisoners whose voting rights remain in limbo because of the financial requirements that were imposed earlier this year by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature and later signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
About two dozen lawyers filled Hinkle's courtroom in Tallahassee, including a phalanx of attorneys arriving from New York and Washington to represent former prisoners who say the state is wrongly barring them from voting because of financial debts.
Florida holds its presidential primary on March 17. It's unlikely that felons now barred from voting will be able to participate unless judges like Hinkle intervene or if Florida lawmakers have a change of heart. If not, the case is expected to drag for many months, if not years. Regardless of his ruling on a temporary injunction against the state, a full trial to consider the merits of the law isn't scheduled until April.
By some counts, more than a fourth of the 1.4 million former inmates who were given the right to vote under the constitutional amendment known as Amendment 4 cannot vote until they pay off fines, restitution, fees and other financial obligations related to their felony convictions.
On Tuesday, Hinkle pointedly asked if the repayment requirement constituted a de facto poll tax on ex-prisoners who cannot afford to pay off their financial debts. And he took issue with new voter registration forms that ask about a person's criminal history, which he said seemed designed to scare ex-prisoners from registering to vote.
Still, Hinkle said he had not decided whether to issue a temporary injunction against the legislatively imposed voting rules.
In his questioning of attorneys, Hinkle sought clarification if Florida's clemency board could grant waivers to felons seeking access to the ballot box under Amendment 4.
Voting rights advocates suggested that relying on the state clemency board would be too onerous and time consuming, and the panel might not be able to handle the volume of requests.
An attorney for the Florida Secretary of State's Office, Mohammad Jazil, would examine the host of issues brought up by the judge.
Hinkle pressed Jazil to address a legal precedent from an earlier Florida case that would seem to bar the government from denying felons access to the ballot box based on their inability to pay restitution.
Jazil countered that it was the state's position that sentences remained unfilled until felons paid their entire debt to society.
Voter advocates have argued that it's sometimes difficult for some released felons to get a full accounting of their financial obligations once released. Betty Riddle, now 62 and among the plaintiffs in the collection of cases before Hinkle, said she owes nearly $2,000 in fees for prior felony convictions. She said she might have other legal debts, but no one can tell her how much and what for.
When Amendment 4 became law, she was first in line to register to vote. When that right was again taken away, she said outside court, "it felt like a lifetime sentence."
Hinkle suggested that both sides find common ground — instead of automatically resorting to litigation — by pursuing a legislative remedy to address some of the important issues that, he said, have made a mess of the voter registration process.