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Lawsuit Over Voting Rights Expands to Include Thousands of Felons

A federal judge this week agreed to add potentially hundreds of thousands of people to a lawsuit that challenges a Florida statute requiring felons to pay outstanding “legal financial obligations” before having their voting rights restored.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued the order on Tuesday, after saying last week that he intended to grant class certification to the case’s plaintiffs, who allege that the law is similar to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

The statute, which was passed last year by Republican lawmakers and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, was aimed at implementing a 2018 constitutional amendment which grants voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, as long as they have fulfilled their court-ordered “legal financial obligations,” including fees, fines and restitution.

In the order issued Tuesday on class certification, Hinkle rejected Secretary of State Laurel Lee’s arguments that such an expansion of plaintiffs was unnecessary.

“The plaintiffs’ Twenty-fourth Amendment and inability-to-pay claims turn on issues that can be properly resolved in a single action, once and for all. Class treatment is proper,” Hinkle wrote in the 18-page order, referring to the U.S. Constitution’s 24th Amendment barring poll taxes.

In a preliminary injunction in the case last October, Hinkle had ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” court-ordered fees, fines and restitution. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals then upheld the injunction, which applied only to the 17 named plaintiffs in the case.

Lee’s lawyers wrote at that time that identification of felons who could not afford to pay their financial obligations “is problematic, ill defined, and requires hundreds of thousands (up to as many as one million) of determinations regarding which former felons are ‘genuinely unable to pay’ their outstanding financial obligations.”

On Tuesday, Hinkle responded that the relief which is likely to be granted, if the plaintiffs win the case, “is not a felon-by-felon determination in this court of inability to pay but instead an injunction requiring the secretary to put in place a system under which felons are not precluded from voting based only on inability to pay.”

He also rejected Lee’s concern that it is unknown who will ultimately be affected by the court’s decision.

Hinkle said “the proposed class and subclass,” which are comprised of felons who owe financial obligations, and felons who cannot afford to pay their outstanding financial obligations, are “sufficiently ascertainable.”

The judge added also did not accept Lee’s argument that class certification was unnecessary, as the state would abide by a ruling about whether the law amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax.

Class treatment “adds a layer of complexity to any litigation,” the judge stated.

He added, “Here, though, the secretary’s promise to abide by any ruling is not enough.”

Nearly 430,000 felons could be added to the lawsuit, which goes to trial April 27.