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Advocates Continue Registering Felons To Vote After Ruling Requires All Legal Financial Obligations

Voter registration form with flag of United States of America
Voter registration form with flag of United States of America

Advocates are working to get as many felons registered to vote before the next election as they can. But a new ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is making that more difficult. It requires felons to first pay off all fines and fees tied to their sentences.

Advocates are working to get as many felons registered to vote before the next election as they can. But a new ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is making that more difficult. It requires felons to first pay off all fines and fees tied to their sentences.

“They’re ruling from the standpoint from what they see the requirement as. And they don’t see the requirement as a poll tax, they don’t see the requirement as something unreasonable," said Michael Stone. "They see it as it’s a part of your sentence and you should complete that. And if that part of your sentence is completed it then you have nothing to complain about.”

Stone is the President of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He’s speaking about the United States 11 th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision that requires felons to pay all of their fines and fees before registering to vote.

Stone again: “But another part of the equation is that a lot of people who are in this situation don’t have money and never did have money and they can’t afford to pay what the next guy can.”

He gives an example.

“In a drug trafficking case, a fine could be $50,000. And somebody who gets out of prison is not going to be able to pay $50,000," said Stone. "So they’ll never be able to complete their sentence.”

Stone believes the burden the rule puts on people in those situations is unfair and that an exception should be made.

“It’s not like you’re living in a penthouse suite you know with flat-screen tv's all over and you just don’t want to pay it. You don’t have the financial ability to pay it. And if that’s the case then they should waive that requirement for you and allow you to vote," said Stone.

Bob Rackleff founder of the Big Bend Voting Rights Project says although the ruling is disappointing there are some good portions.

"One of them was I can quote now says, a felon who honestly believes he’s completed their sentence commits no crime by registering as a voter," said Rackleff. "So if they honestly believe they’ve completed their sentence and they tell me that I take their word for it."

Another bright spot is that any felon who has registered since Amendment 4 passed can vote this November unless the state finds proof they haven’t completed their sentence--something Rackleff thinks is unlikely.

“Well if the criminal proceeding was before 2000 it’s probably not stored electronically. It’s on paper it’s in the basement of some filing cabinet in some county courthouse in Florida," said Rackleff.

The ruling mentioned that 85,000 felons fall under that situation currently. Rackleff hopes he can increase the number of felons registered between now and October 5.

"So far we’ve done 805 registrations," said Rackleff. "That’s mostly in Leon County but also in other counties like Gadsden, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Franklin, Gulf County."

Rackleff says getting felons to register sometimes is difficult but has a trick up his sleeve to entice them to register.

"Our most persuasive argument to reluctant nonvoters is well if you register you get to vote on $15 minimum wage on November 3," said Rackleff. "That’s something that will affect them personally and directly."

Florida is one of 21 states that allows for a felon’s voting rights to be given back once they’ve completed their sentence. Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote whiles still behind bars.

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