Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed into law a bill that equates to a poll tax on former felons whose voting rights were restored last year by a majority of Florida voters who amended the state’s constitution. Civil rights groups immediately countered by suing DeSantis’ administration in an effort to stop the new law.
DeSantis signed SB 7066, which requires formerly incarcerated people to fulfill all of the legal financial obligations of their criminal sentences before their voting rights are restored. The bill’s signing was the culmination of an effort by DeSantis and Republican state lawmakers in recent months to block Amendment 4, which enfranchised roughly 1.4 million residents with former felony convictions who had completed their sentences, excluding those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
Amendment 4, one of the most important expansions of voters rights since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was approved by nearly 65% of Florida voters last year, or some 5 million people.
In response to DeSantis signing the law, 10 Floridians, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, sued Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and numerous county elections officials. The lawsuit argues that SB 7066 violates several constitutional amendments, including the 1st, 14th, and 15th. The complaint also argues that the law violates the 24th Amendment, which abolished poll taxes.
The lawsuit notes that Florida’s Amendment 4 ended the disenfranchisement of 10% of the state’s voting-age population, and 20% of its African American voting-age population.
As Splinter’s Sophie Weiner previously noted, limiting voter enfranchisement to those who have repaid legal financial obligations could prevent up to 1.1 million former prisoners from voting. And NBC News reported that while court fees vary per person, even small fees are difficult to pay back, given that the median annual income for those newly out of prison is about $6,500, according to one Harvard researcher.
Per the lawsuit:
SB 7066 conditions Plaintiffs’ right to vote on their wealth and penalizes returning citizens who are unable to pay, in violation of the First, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution. If not enjoined, the law will have a massive disenfranchising effect, and result in sustained, and likely permanent, disenfranchisement for individuals without means. It creates two classes of returning citizens: those who are wealthy enough to vote and those who cannot afford to. This disenfranchisement will be borne disproportionately by low-income individuals and racial minorities, due to longstanding and well-documented racial gaps in poverty and employment.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Northern Florida, also claims SB 7066 is further unlawful because it was motivated by racial discrimination. “It is well-established that people with felony convictions in Florida are disproportionately Black—a product of higher rates of police stops, arrest, prosecution, and conviction of Black citizens in the criminal justice system,” it said. “It is also well-established that a large majority of returning citizens have [legal financial obligations] they cannot pay now or in the foreseeable future.”