Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking a federal appeals court to put on hold a ruling that would potentially allow hundreds of thousands of ex-felons to register and vote this November, arguing that the decision could “corrupt” the integrity of the state’s elections.
On Wednesday, the governor requested that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issue a stay as his administration continues to fight a lower-court ruling about a 2019 state law that is aimed at implementing a constitutional amendment that restored the voting rights of felons “who have completed all terms of their sentences, including parole and probation.”
Voting rights and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit several months ago, challenging the constitutionality of part of last year’s law that requires felons to pay “legal financial obligations,” or fees, fines, costs and restitution, that are associated with their convictions in order to be eligible to vote.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled last October that the state cannot deny the right to vote to someone who is “genuinely unable to pay.”
He also established a process last month for the state to use in determining felons’ voting eligibility. In addition, Hinkle issued a ruling on Sunday that rejected a stay sought by DeSantis.
In a 35-page brief filed on Wednesday, the state’s lawyers argued that the 2019 law should not be overturned.
“Here, Florida’s interest in punishing a felony is not satisfied until all the terms of a felon’s sentence are completed in full,” the brief said.
It further stated, “This is true whether the uncompleted term at issue is a period of incarceration or a fine and regardless of why the term remains unsatisfied.”
Hinkle’s ruling last month established a path for most ex-felons to register and vote, based on their financial status at the time they were convicted.
Soon thereafter, DeSantis asked the Atlanta-based appeals court to hold an “en banc,” or full court, hearing in the state’s challenge to Hinkle’s order. Three-judge panels are almost always used to initial appeals.
There are 17,000 pending applications for clemency in Florida.
600 of those people are waiting on @GovRonDeSantis to sign-off on their voting rights be restored.
But he chose to cancel the first clemency hearing of 2020.
This is voter suppression.
— Nikki Fried (@nikkifried) June 15, 2020
The state also asked the appellate court to expedite the case, which it did. However, the 11th Circuit has not responded to the request for an en banc hearing.
Lawyers for DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee argue in the brief filed on Wednesday that the state law properly carries out the intent of what appeared as “Amendment 4” on Florida’s November 2018 ballot.
Hinkle’s ruling “thwarts the people’s wishes, as it allows individuals to register and vote who are not eligible under Amendment 4,” the state’s lawyers wrote.
The federal judge’s decision would allow “hundreds of thousands of felons who are ineligible to vote under Florida law” to cast ballots, they also argued.
“Indeed, if the district court’s order is in place during the elections, but is later vacated, the integrity of the elections will have been corrupted and their results possibly opened to challenge,” DeSantis’ lawyers said.
Last October, Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction in the dispute. A three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld that injunction in February, and the appeals court then declined to hold an en banc hearing.
The state’s lawyers responded to the three-judge panel’s decision on Wednesday by writing, “A felon loses his right to vote as punishment for committing a felony, not for being unable to satisfy the financial terms imposed as part of that sentence.”
They continued, “The financial terms, like any other terms of a sentence, are simply part of the debt that the felon owes to society, as measured by the judge and jury who imposed it on behalf of society.”
On Sunday, Judge Hinkle refused to grant the state’s request to block his order from going into effect while the appeal is still pending.
“No matter how many times the state asserts the contrary, a statute that punishes some individuals more harshly based only on wealth, or that irrationally conditions eligibility to vote on wealth, is unconstitutional,” wrote Hinkle, who has repeatedly referred to the state law as a “pay-to-vote” system.