JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court sided with Gov. Ron DeSantis in a legal dispute over restoring voting rights to felons with unpaid fines — one of many clashes over the ballot box in a state that will play a crucial role in this year’s presidential election.
The court’s advisory opinion — requested by the Republican governor last year — has no immediate legal consequence, but could influence federal judges weighing legal wranglings over the voter-approved measure known as Amendment 4.
In a separate opinion, the court found no reason to prevent a measure from going to voters this year that would tweak the state’s constitution to specify that “only a citizen” of the United States can vote in Florida. A conservative group friendly to President Donald Trump is seeking the change from the current citizenship requirement stating that “every citizen” who is qualified to register can vote.
The Supervisor of Elections Office in Jacksonville told News4Jax that it doesn’t keep track of the number of convicted felons who have had their rights restored. Some studies suggest it’s around 30,000 people in Jacksonville.
News4Jax spoke with Matt Seedorf, a convicted felon who is working to get his rights back. Seedorf is getting help from Operation New Hope, a program with the goal of giving people out of prison a second chance. He served time for armed trespassing.
Seedorf said he agrees with the court ruling, but said its important to get his voting rights back.
“Fundamentally, it means being a citizen again,” he said. “Being able to vote who governs me. Being able to vote on the bills that are passed.”
In order for that to happen, Seedorf said he still has a fine to pay off, which he plans to do.
A tweet on Gov. DeSantis’ Twitter account praised the court’s decision:
I am pleased that @FLCourts confirms that Amendment 4 requires fines, fees & restitution be paid to victims before their voting rights may be restored. Voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, and I am obligated to faithfully implement Amendment 4 as it is defined.— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) January 16, 2020
The tweet called voting a privilege and did not call it a right. While in Jacksonville on Friday, DeSantis told News4Jax he was not the one who tweeted that.
“First of all, I don’t tweet. You can talk to my staff,” DeSantis told News4Jax.
The governor did, however, acknowledge that he believes the court got it right.
“What I didn’t like about Amendment 4 -- I voted against because it enfranchises violent felons. You have people that have committed very serious violent felonies that could be eligible, and I just don’t agree with that,” DeSantis said.
At the time Amendment 4 was ratified overwhelmingly by voters in November 2018, proponents said it would give voting rights back to about 1.4 million felons who have completed their prison terms.
In its advisory opinion, the court said only felons who have fully completed their sentences can regain access to the ballot box. And the court agreed with the governor and legislative Republicans that this means all outstanding legal financial obligations, which it referred to as LFOs, must have been satisfied.
“The answer to the Governor’s question largely turns on whether ‘all terms of sentence’ encompasses all obligations or only durational periods,” the court wrote. “We conclude that the phrase, when read and understood in context, plainly refers to obligations and includes ‘all’ — not some — LFOs imposed in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt.”
Advocates for restoring the rights argue that felons merely had to serve the duration of their prison sentences before becoming eligible, and were not required to finish paying court-imposed fines, restitution or other legal fees.
Voter rights groups have sued the state in federal court, but a trial is not expected until spring. The lower-court ruling is almost certain to be appealed by the losing side, likely delaying any resolution until after the 2020 elections.