A much-watched voting rights case in Florida came to a close on Wednesday with the federal judge explicitly stating that he would rule against the state of Florida. The dramatic ending to the trial came after seven days of testimony from elected officials, state employees, plaintiffs and voting rights advocates.
At issue was a law passed by the Florida Legislature last year requiring anyone with a felony conviction, who wishes to vote, to first pay all “legal financial obligations” connected to their case. That law was passed and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis — a defendant in the case — after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 in 2018. The new addition to the state constitution automatically restored voting rights to most people with felony convictions.
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The plaintiffs allege that the law is unconstitutional on a number of grounds, including that it is discrimination based on wealth as well as race; and that conditioning someone’s right to vote on payment constitutes a "poll tax."
Before closing arguments on Wednesday, Florida Division of Elections director Maria Matthews testified that the state still had not created a concrete plan for implementing the law.
“We don’t have anything final at this point. We’ve just been chatting about it,” testified Matthews.
Matthews acknowledged that her boss, Secretary of State Laurel Lee —also a defendant in the case — had not provided guidance to county elections supervisors about how they should apply the new law, leading to confusion that has impacted the voting rights of an unknown thousands of Floridians.
“The information that we have found has not been credible,” said Mary Jane Arrington, the Supervisor of Elections of Osceola County.
Arrington testified that when her office has tried to find out whether people with felony convictions still owe money for past crimes, she has hit brick wall after brick wall. Most of the relevant court records that would verify whether someone is able to vote or not are held by county clerks of courts. Yet clerks offices have files offering conflicting amounts, several witnesses in the trial testified. In some cases, files simply cannot be found.
“It would be nice if we had a clearinghouse or something like that that could give us this information. But voters, or potential voters are lost a lot of times as to where to even begin this process,” said Arrington.
Matthews testified that the difficulty of verifying would-be voters’ eligibility to vote or not, with the new state law, has greatly slowed down the work of state employees who are dedicated to that process.
There are currently 85,000 people with felony convictions who have registered to vote in Florida. Currently, state employees are only able to process an average of about 57 of those pending voter registration forms per day, Matthews testified.
That number alarmed US District Court Judge Robert Hinkle, who presided over the virtual trial. He did some back-of-the-envelope math and commented on it.
“We were talking about this all being done and in place where people could be able to vote in the 2020 election,” said Judge Hinkle. “But this suggests that they wouldn’t even be able to vote in the 2024 election."
During the closing arguments on Wednesday, the confusion over how to verify who can legally register to vote hung over every other issue at hand, including open questions on allegations that state lawmakers passed the law in order to discriminate against black Floridians, who disproportionately have felony convictions, and who on average make less money than white Floridians.
Judge Hinkle also repeatedly tangled with Mohammed Jazil, the attorney representing Gov. DeSantis and Secretary of State Lee during the closing arguments.
With every new fact drawn out, Hinkle found a new issue to be probed. With every potential solution, a new problem.
People can get information about what money — if any — they owe for past felony convictions from their public defenders, Jazil argued.
Hinkle countered: What about cases from the 1960s, before people had the right to a public defender?
Jazil replied that those people would have to be “rather aged.” To which Hinkle responded: 94-year-olds have a right to vote, and the public defender system wasn’t rolled out overnight.
That exchange was just one example, and things continued in that fashion until Hinkle decided to put his proposal on the table.
“Look, here’s where I think we are,” started Hinkle. “I’m gonna make a ruling. I expect it to be a whole lot easier to administer than anything you’ve dealt with so far. That may be a bit of a bold statement, and when I write it down I might find it’s not as easy as I thought it might be. And I certainly don’t think it’s easy. But I hope to make it better for you.”
Before the trial ever began, Hinkle was explicit with attorneys that if he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear from the state, he would come up with his own solution to the problems at hand in the case. And by the end of the trial he made it clear that he would do just that.
“I’m not so naive that when I write this the reaction will be, ‘Wow, this will work!’ I don’t really think I’m gonna hit that standard,” said Hinkle. “If you look at the remedy and you think you’ve got a better idea and you want to put it in a motion to alter and amend, then put it in a motion to alter and amend. Just do it as soon as you can.”