Court Battles

Supreme Court declines to reinstate vote of nearly 1 million Florida felons

The Supreme Court on Thursday let stand a lower court ruling that could strip voting eligibility from up to 1 million Florida felons who have completed their sentences but have yet to pay outstanding fines, restitution and other fees.

In an unsigned opinion, the conservative-majority court declined to revisit a federal appeals court ruling that permits Florida to stop felons with outstanding court-imposed debt from registering to vote as a July 20 primary election registration deadline approaches.

Three of the court’s more liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, dissented.

“Under this scheme, nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens cannot vote unless they pay money,” wrote Sotomayor, who called the policy a “voter paywall.”

The dispute concerns a 2018 amendment to Florida’s constitution that restored voting rights to those with felony convictions who had completed “all terms” of their sentences.

The state’s legislature and highest court treat the amendment as requiring payment of all court-imposed costs before voting eligibility is restored, which sparked court challenges.

Several poor, court-indebted felons who had otherwise served out their sentences asked a federal court to strike down the pay requirement on constitutional grounds.

In May, a federal trial court invalidated the payment component, ruling that it was unlawful to prohibit voting access based on indigence. 

But on July 1, just over two weeks before the voter-registration deadline, the Atlanta-based Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed to halt the lower court ruling while an appeal played out.

The appeals court ruling effectively makes it illegal for court-indebted felons to register to vote or cast ballots.

Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and an election law expert, said the Supreme Court’s inaction could have major implications for both Florida’s upcoming August primary vote as well as the November general election. 

“This case is perhaps the most consequential when it comes to election outcomes,” he wrote on the Election Law Blog. “Florida is a perennial swing state and the number of voters affected by this ruling is significant.”

In her dissent, Sotomayor said “this Court’s inaction continues a trend of condoning disfranchisement.”

Updated at 3:09 p.m.

Court Battles