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U.S. Supreme Court Sides With DeSantis On Voting Rights Case

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Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
Dolce Bastien, right, registers to vote after getting his rights restored in Miami

The U.S. Supreme Court handed a major victory to Gov. Ron DeSantis, refusing to allow hundreds of thousands of Floridians with felony convictions to participate in upcoming elections.

It’s the latest chapter in a head-spinning, high-consequence legal battle that started when Florida voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018 with nearly 65 percent of the vote.

The ballot measure ended Florida’s lifetime ban on voting for people with felony convictions. On the heels of that win, the Florida Legislature passed a law that conditioned the right to vote, for people with felony convictions, on the payment of things like fines and court costs.

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Federal judge Robert Hinkle ruled in May that about three quarters of a million Floridians with felony convictions could vote in upcoming elections if they are “genuinely unable” to pay money they still owe for past crimes.

Further, he ruled that many would-be voters have no way of verifying if they owe money in the first place, and that the many eligible voters won't be able to participate in upcoming elections because of spotty recordkeeping and an inability of the state of Florida to help them.

Earlier this month, that decision was temporarily blocked by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, at least until the appeals process is completed. The order had no explanation for how it reached its decision, and consisted of a single sentence.

That led plaintiffs to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the question in an emergency petition. Plaintiffs were hoping the highest court would allow would-be voters to participate in the August primary elections.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court denied the petition, and kept the temporary block in place. Like the appeals court order, the decision offered no explanation for the how or why it did so.

An estimated 750,000 Floridians’ ability to participate in upcoming elections are impacted by the decision.

“This is a deeply disappointing decision,” said Paul Smith, vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, which helped file the petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Florida’s voters spoke loud and clear when nearly two-thirds of them supported rights restoration at the ballot box in 2018. The Supreme Court stood by as the Eleventh Circuit prevented hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida’s primary election simply because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees. We look forward to continuing to fight for Florida voters so they can participate in the General Election in November.”

In a filing submitted to the Supreme Court, the DeSantis administration argued that it has the right to condition voting rights for people with felony convictions on paying things like court costs, fines and restitution, “even if the felon cannot afford to pay the financial terms of his sentence.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg dissented from the Supreme Court’s majority decision.

It’s not the end of the road for the much-watched case. The federal appeals court will hear arguments Aug. 18, the same day as Florida's primary election. And once the appeals court is decided, it is broadly expected that it will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court — no matter which side wins.