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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul today led a coalition of 20 Attorneys General in opposing a Florida “pay-to-vote” law that creates barriers to voting for formerly incarcerated citizens. Florida’s Senate Bill 7066 (SB-7066) requires returning citizens to pay all court-ordered financial obligations before they can vote, which disenfranchises citizens long after their release from incarceration. In an amicus brief filed in Jones v. DeSantis before the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the coalition argues that the Florida law unlawfully conditions voting on payment of court-ordered financial obligations and does not provide an adequate process for determining the amount owed. The coalition also notes that this law disproportionately harms African Americans, the Latinx community, and low-income returning citizens. The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to restore the vote to former felons.
“Florida’s pay-to-vote law for returning citizens is nothing less than a modern-day poll tax that seeks to disproportionately and unlawfully deny voting rights to minorities and low-income citizens,” said AG Racine. “Returning citizens have paid their debt to society and should not have their determination to participate in our democracy frustrated by those who want to suppress the vote.”
Felon disenfranchisement in the United States is the product of a disparate patchwork of state laws. Only seventeen states automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies upon their release from incarceration. In July 2020, as part of temporary emergency legislation, the District restored voting rights to people currently incarcerated for felony offenses; the D.C. Council is also considering a permanent version of this bill. Studies show that expanding the right to vote to people convicted of a felony benefits both the returning citizens and the communities they rejoin. However, as of 2016, approximately 4.7 million people who have been convicted of felony offenses in the United States—about 1 in every 40 adults—have completed the terms of their incarceration but are denied voting rights.
In 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that automatically restored the voting rights of some felons “upon completion of all terms” of their sentences, “including parole or probation.” In response, in 2019, the Florida Legislature enacted SB-7066, which defined “completion of all terms of sentence” to include not just any term of imprisonment or supervision, but also financial obligations included in the sentence. Following a legal challenge to SB-7066, the district court blocked enforcement of the law, and the case is now on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. If the court upholds SB-7066, nearly one million Florida residents would be unable to vote because they have unpaid legal financial obligations.
In this amicus brief, the states collectively support the plaintiffs’ challenge to the Florida felon disenfranchisement law because:
- Pay-to-vote laws harm low-income returning citizens and do not compel payment: States that condition restoration of voting rights to people convicted of felonies on payment of all legal financial obligations disadvantages low-income residents by indefinitely depriving them of the right to vote. There is little evidence that disenfranchisement compels people to pay outstanding legal financial obligations if they do not have the money to do so. This is especially true in Florida, which has not established an administrative process for returning citizens to ascertain what, if anything, they owe.
- Felon disenfranchisement disproportionately harms African Americans and the Latinx community: States have recognized the importance of restoring voting rights to returning citizens given the disparate impact felon disenfranchisement laws have on minority communities. As of 2016, over 7.4 percent of the African American voting age population in the United States could not vote, as compared to only 1.8 percent of the non-African American voting age population. In Florida, more than 20 percent of Black adults have been disenfranchised. Available data also suggests that disenfranchisement laws disproportionately harm the Latinx community because they are incarcerated at higher rates than the non-Latinx population: about 2.4 times greater for Latinx men and 1.5 times for Latinx women.
- Expanding voting to returning citizens promotes successful reintegration and enhances public safety: Over the past twenty years, states have restored the right to vote to more than one million citizens by reforming their felon disenfranchisement laws. These reform efforts include laws repealing lifetime disenfranchisement, allowing people convicted of felonies to vote while completing the terms of their probation or parole, eliminating requirements to pay legal financial obligations, and providing information to felons leaving correctional facilities about restoration of their voting rights and registering to vote. These state efforts are supported by studies finding that restoring voting rights to former felons fosters civic participation and reduces their likelihood of committing further crimes.
A copy of the amicus brief is available here: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-08/Jones-v-DeSantis-Amicus.pdf
D.C. AG Racine and Illinois AG Raoul are co-leading today’s friend-of-the-court brief and are joined by state Attorneys General from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.