Federal trial opens over Fla.'s felon voting law
Lawyers are trying to persuade a judge to permanently undo a state law that requires felons to first settle their financial debts before regaining the right to vote
By Bobby Caina Calvan
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Betty Riddle took her place at the head of the line at a Sarasota community center early one morning in March, butterflies rising in her stomach. In and out of prison for much of her life, she never thought the day would come when she would be casting her first ballot — at age 62.
That day arrived March 17 when Florida held its presidential primary. For Riddle, it was her first opportunity to vote after a federal judge last fall temporarily barred the state of Florida from preventing her and 16 others from voting.
During a trial that began Monday morning, her lawyers hope to persuade the same U.S. District Court judge to permanently undo a state law that requires felons to first settle their financial debts before regaining the right to vote under Amendment 4. That 2018 ballot measure restored the voting franchise to felons who have done their time and completed probation.
“It was one of the greatest moments in my life,” said Riddle, describing that day in March when she cast her first vote. “It was like getting your freedom back, allowing my voice to be heard.”
As a plaintiff in a voting rights case, which is being held by virtual conferencing because of the coronavirus outbreak, she now speaks on behalf of many more disenfranchised Floridians who lost the right to vote when they were convicted of serious crimes.
In a state that holds great sway in national politics, particularly because of razor-thin margins that sometimes decide key races, access to the ballot box is no minor issue. According to a study submitted as evidence, more than 774,000 felons across Florida’s 67 counties are ineligible to vote because of financial debts — a sizable group of potential voters.
“We’re talking about the voting rights of three-quarters of a million people. Obviously, that’s enough to determine plenty of local or statewide, or even wider, elections," said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
After voters approved Amendment 4, Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other legal financial obligations before their sentences will be considered fully served.
In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction against some parts of that new law. And in February, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit let the injunction stand. Last month, an Atlanta-based appellate court declined to hear a further appeal backed by the governor.
The ACLU and two other groups are representing the majority of the named plaintiffs in what is now a consolidated class action suit. The case is seeking to strike down Florida’s financial requirement that bars felons from voting.
DeSantis and other Republicans argue that paying one’s debt to society is not just about serving time, but also settling outstanding fines, restitution and other legal financial obligations.
At a hearing last fall, Judge Hinkle suggested that Florida can prevent felons access to the ballot box if they have the means to repay outstanding financial obligations but refuse. But he likened the state's financial requirement to a poll tax if it continues to deny the vote to felons too poor to fully settle up.
Riddle was 17 when she was first convicted of a violent assault. Over the years, she spent five stints in prison, mostly for drug offenses. Her last stint ended in 2008.
She said she can't afford to pay her outstanding debts, which she estimated to be at least $2,000. She's not even sure exactly how much she owes because records aren't easy to track.
All those many years, she said, she sat from the sidelines knowing she couldn't fully take part in her civic duties.
“It was a lifetime sentence. I always thought about it when I saw people going out to vote or watching it on TV. I knew I couldn't," she said.
But the day she could vote finally came.
“I was excited. I was giddy. I was nervous. I was all those things," she said. “I was clapping my hands excitedly, and I was praying to the Lord."
The trial's outcome, however, may not be the final word because the losing side is likely to appeal.