Federal Judge Robert Hinkle has spent the last week doing double duty as judge and IT manager. While presiding over a major voting rights trial that is taking place remotely, he has at times had to instruct attorneys and witnesses to “hit the F5 button” or to “moot” themselves — an apparent continual slip up confusing the legal term with the technological action of muting audio.
But despite the intermittent tech issues and the court reporter asking speakers to slow down or repeat themselves, the unprecedented virtual trial has largely run smoothly.
At question in the case is a controversial state law passed last year that made it so anyone with a felony conviction must pay all fines, fees and restitution connected to their case before regaining the right to vote. That law was passed after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 in 2018, ending Florida’s lifelong voting ban for people with felony convictions.
The plaintiffs allege that creating a financial barrier to the ballot box is unconstitutional. Further, they allege lawmakers were discriminating against black Floridians, since African-Americans are overrepresented among those with felony convictions. If the plaintiffs are successful, potentially hundreds of thousands of Floridians could newly be eligible to vote.
Elected officials, expert witnesses and plaintiffs took the stand during the first week of trial.
“I don’t have the funds. I don’t have the finances available,” said Sheila Singleton, a plaintiff who lives in Jacksonville. She owes more than $16,000 in combined court costs, fines and restitution, and doesn’t foresee being able to pay it off in her lifetime because she has a disability and limited job prospects.
“I would never be able to pay it off because it’s so much,” she testified.
A large part of the testimony so far has focused on the ability of the public and even government agencies to find out how much — if any — money is owed by someone with a felony conviction.
There is no centralized statewide database where information about money owed can be searched. As a result, most of the relevant records are held by each county’s Clerk of Courts offices. But even those offices have conflicting records of the same cases.
That’s what happened with plaintiff Pastor Clifford Tyson, a Tampa resident. Records from the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court and Comptroller office indicate conflicting amounts that he would have to pay before voting.
“Our office went to considerable lengths to try to determine the discrepancy with the financial amount shown in the judgement sentence and the amount that were shown in our case maintenance system,” said Douglas Bakke, the chief operations officer of the Hillsborough County office. “The only thing that we can attribute that inaccuracy to is this 1998 case was — I say ‘birthed’ or created two case maintenance systems ago.”
“It appears that along the way, there were conversion issues that didn’t properly bring over all the financial obligations imposed,” he said.
County elections supervisors, who have the final say on a person's voting eligibility, have also been unable to get accurate records.
“The information that we have found has not been credible,” testified Mary Jane Arrington, the Supervisor of Elections of Osceola County. “Maybe the [Florida Division of Election] has access to information that I am not aware of that would be credible.”
Because of the confusion, Arrington suggested there are people who are in fact eligible to vote but who are unable to verify it. As a result, those people are not registering to vote, out of fear of prosecution for illegally registering to vote, she said.
An attorney for Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee — a defendant in the case alongside Governor Ron DeSantis — said in the case that someone’s original sentencing documents can't be located, the person would be taken off a statewide list of people with felony convictions. Therefore, they would be eligible to vote.
That assertion provoked a skeptical response from Judge Hinkle, who said the state had previously declared that position, only to walk back on its word at an earlier stage of the lawsuit.
“I was just astounded to hear the Secretary of State suggesting in a federal lawsuit that there is an equivalence between invalidating the match and eligibility to vote,” said Hinkle. “I would not have thought that those were the same thing, and I just think that it’s convenient in the lawsuit to try to equate them, but when push comes to shove nobody is going to stand up behind that position.”
Florida Division of Elections director Maria Matthews is supposed to testify during the second week of the trial, and Hinkle said he would like to learn more about the state’s position on the issue directly from her. (Attorneys said Matthews might not be available to testify, and Hinkle responded that the trial should “outrank” any scheduling conflicts that Matthews might have.)
Nearly all of the testimony heard during the first week was from the plaintiffs' side. More witnesses from the state’s side are expected to speak in week two.
However, on the final day of the first week, attorneys for Gov. DeSantis and Secretary of State Lee played a clip of a recorded deposition from Desmond Meade, who was the face of the campaign to pass Amendment 4. The tape was meant to cut at assertions that the legislature acted in bad faith when passing the law.
In the clip, Meade said that he worked with key members of the legislature to add a provision allowing courts to modify sentences to allow more people to vote.
“Was it the most ideal piece of legislation? No it wasn’t,” said Meade. “But it was legislation that we felt we could live with. Fully embrace it? No. There were some improvements that could be made, but we were, we could live with it.”
Asked if he thought state Sen. Jeff Brandes and Rep. Jamie Grant, the two Republican sponsors of the legislation, wrote the law with the intention of discriminating against anyone, Meade was unequivocal.
“I believe the exact opposite to be true,” said Meade. “I believe there was some genuine intent between those two legislators to actually try to get this right.”