By John Haughey | The Center Square
With the February 18th deadline to register to vote in Florida’s March 17th Democratic and Republican presidential primaries looming, it remains uncertain whether felons who have completed their sentences will be able to cast ballots.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is deliberating Florida’s appeal of an October ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who determined a 2019 law barring felons from voting unless they paid all fines and restitution was unconstitutional.
Lawyers representing Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee appeared before the 11th Circuit Court last month to defend the law. The Atlanta-based appellate court has not issued a ruling.
Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 7066 as “enabling legislation” after more than 71 percent of Florida voters in November 2018 approved Amendment 4, restoring voting rights for felons other than those convicted of murder and sexual assault.
SB 7066 required felons pay all fines, fees, and restitution before being eligible to vote, prompting a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee on behalf of 17 felons by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense, and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice, among others.
In his October ruling, Hinkle determined it was unconstitutional to deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable” to pay financial obligations.
Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction against the state prohibiting the 17 plaintiffs in the case from registering to vote, and he said the state needed to develop an administrative process for felons to prove they are unable to pay court-ordered obligations.
Hinkle also agreed, however, to stay the injunction until the 11th Circuit heard the state’s appeal and issued its ruling – or until Feb. 11, depending on which came first.
By Feb. 11, he wrote in his decision, the appellate court “will have at least a tentative view of the likely outcome. That court will be far better positioned than this one to decide whether the preliminary injunction’s voting provisions should be allowed to take effect.”
Feb. 11 – Tuesday – came and went without Hinkle lifting his stay or the 11th Circuit issuing a decision.
In a 21-page motion filed with the 11th Circuit on Tuesday, state attorneys argued Hinkle’s stay should remain in place until the appeals court rules. Allowing the 17 plaintiffs to vote would “inflict irreparable harm upon the state,” lawyers for DeSantis and Lee wrote.
“Absent either an extension of the stay or a decision reversing the district court, plaintiffs will be free to vote in the upcoming Florida presidential preference primary election,” the lawyers wrote. “As even the district court acknowledged, to the extent it was wrong about the likely merits of this case – as appellants submit it was – permitting ineligible voters like plaintiffs to cast a ballot will inflict irreparable harm on the state and be contrary to the public interest.”
Plaintiffs could, potentially, cast ballots in presidential primaries in some counties as early as March 2, state attorneys said.
“And while appellants are not aware of any plaintiffs having done so, they potentially could request vote-by-mail ballots, which may be canvassed as early as Feb. 24,” the lawyers added.
A brief filed in January before the 11th Circuit for one of the plaintiffs by Campaign Legal Center, based in Washington, D.C., maintains Florida’s appeal “seeks to undermine the bedrock constitutional principle that the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of wealth.”
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