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Federal judge weighs felon voting rights in Florida

Photo: News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal judge urged voter advocates and Florida officials Tuesday to resolve their dispute over the rights of felons to regain the vote, as he decides whether to temporarily block a state law requiring ex-prisoners to settle outstanding fines and other legal obligations before their access to the ballot box is restored.

After hearing testimony and arguments over two days, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the law created an "administrative nightmare.'' It was enacted despite a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters last fall that restored the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete their sentences. 

With Florida's record as a key political battleground, the case's outcome -- and the outcomes of other Florida voting rights disputes -- will attract widespread interest as the nation gears up for the 2020 presidential elections. 

Throughout the proceedings, Hinkle appeared sympathetic to thousands of former felons whose voting rights remain in limbo because of the financial requirements that were imposed earlier this year by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature and later signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

About two dozen lawyers filled Hinkle's courtroom in Tallahassee, including a phalanx of attorneys arriving from New York and Washington to represent former felons who say the state is wrongly barring them from voting because of financial debts. 

By some counts, more than a fourth of the 1.4 million former felons who were given the right to vote under the constitutional amendment known as Amendment 4 cannot vote until they pay off fines, restitution, fees and other financial obligations related to their felony convictions.

On Tuesday, Hinkle pointedly asked if the repayment requirement constituted a de facto poll tax on former felons who cannot afford to pay off their financial debts. And he took issue with new voter registration forms that ask about a person's criminal history, which he said seemed designed to scare former felons from registering to vote.

Still, Hinkle said he had not decided whether to issue a temporary injunction against the legislatively imposed voting rules. 

In his questioning of attorneys, Hinkle sought clarification if Florida's clemency board could grant waivers to felons seeking access to the ballot box under Amendment 4.

Voting rights advocates suggested that relying on the state clemency board would be too onerous and time consuming, and the panel might not be able to handle the volume of requests.

Hinkle suggested that both sides find common ground -- instead of automatically resorting to litigation --to address some of the important issues that, he said, have made a mess of the voter registration process.