A federal appeals court just handed down a significant decision (embedded below) that allows Florida’s 1.4 million ex-felons who have paid their debt to society to continue voter registration for the 2020 election.
A three-judge 11th Circuit federal appeals court panel just upheld a lower court injunction against the “poll tax” law enacted by Florida’s Republican legislature and signed by its Trump-backed GOP Governor, Ron DeSantis.
It means that Florida residents who have been convicted of a felony offense are definitely allowed to register to vote in the 2020 presidential election without having to pay outstanding cash penalties and legal debts.
After seventeen disenfranchised voters sued because the legislature didn’t consider their ability to repay, Florida’s Supreme Court upheld law SB 7066, which required those citizens who served their time to pay off often-heavy legal financial obligations (LFOs) before registering to vote.
But today’s 11th Circuit decision has effectively overturned Florida’s Supreme Court decision — for at least the 2020 election — based on the speed of these decisions and keeping it from taking effect. The judges wrote:
Because the LFO requirement punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can—and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box—Supreme Court precedent leads us to apply heightened scrutiny in asking whether the requirement violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to these plaintiffs.
When measured against this standard, we hold that it does and affirm the preliminary injunction entered by the district court.
“Today’s ruling is a major win for democracy,” wrote Florida Democratic Party (FDP) Chair Terry Rizzo in a statement celebrating the ruling. “It is time for the Florida Legislature to repeal the DeSantis Poll Tax, now!”
Florida is a key swing state in presidential elections, once decided by only 500 votes and a GOP-dominated Supreme Court ruling, which is why its Democrats are focusing keenly on expanding the electorate. The largest margin of victory in Florida since 1992 has been 285,000 votes.
Good voting news out of Florida is plentiful. Not only are is the state already collecting absentee vote-by-mail ballots in the 2020 party presidential primary in record numbers, but party voter registration efforts and trends in the electorate are very encouraging as well.
“The FDP has registered 9,300 voters this month to date alone, and many of them are returning citizens versus only 17,700 registrations by the state party in all of 2015,” says FDP Executive Director Juan Peñalosa, who was enthusiastic about today’s ruling. “We have data to contact returning voters and we’re targeting them with digital ads and street teams.” The state party is only one entity registering voters in Florida.
The Miami-Dade Democratic Party has released voter registration data indicating that since the 2016 election, more than 34,000 voters in Miami-Dade County have switched their party affiliation to the Democratic Party and a further 26,446 voters switched from “No Party Affiliation” to Democrat.
Crucially, 8,078 have switched from Republican Party to Democrat. Peñalosa said that those registrations could have a significant impact on the election of Democrats in many swing district races down the ballot.
“The data indicates that thousands of Miami-Dade voters are fed up with the impeached President and are ready to move our country forward with progressive policies that benefit working families,” said Steve Simeonidis, Chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
The battle to register Florida voters who have served their time began three years ago, when activists successfully put a citizen’s initiative constitutional referendum, Amendment 4, onto the ballot for the 2018 election. Propelled by the “blue wave” that put the House of Representatives back in Democratic hands, it passed with flying colors.
The Amendment 4 referendum restored the voting rights of returning citizens automatically and erased a Reconstruction-era portion of the state’s constitution that canceled their voting registrations forever unless the state’s governor personally intervened.
Since then, statehouse Republicans have waged a full-scale war on voting.
In addition to the poll tax, SB 7066 included a provision that banned college campus voting because of “insufficient parking,” a gruel-thin excuse for not wanting the 60,000 votes cast on campuses in 2018 to repeat in 2020.
The only reason those 60,000 college students gained a voice in politics was a federal court ruling overturning a 2014 ban on-campus voting by a GOP-appointed Secretary of State.
Today’s court ruling means that the race to register as many citizens who’ve overcome their pasts to become productive members of society is on, and it has a massive national implication because many of those people are potential voters of color who tend to lean towards voting for Democrats.
Florida’s status as a presidential battleground state is underscored by its voting for the winner in 22 out of the last 26 presidential elections, with the only recent exceptions being Clinton in 1992 and JFK in 1960.
If Florida goes blue, there’s a strong chance that the next president of the United States is the Democratic nominee.
Here’s a copy of the complete 11th Circuit ruling:
Grant Stern is the Executive Editor of Occupy Democrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report, and a senior advisor to the Democratic Coalition