(The Center Square) – As August’s state primaries and November’s general election near, legal battles continue in Florida over access to the ballot box and the ballots.
Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration filed Friday its intent to challenge U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle’s May 24 ruling that allows an estimated 775,000 Florida felons to vote in 2020 elections.
On May 20, national and state Democratic organizations asked the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court to review a ruling that rejected their challenge of a Florida law that requires candidates from the sitting governor’s party to be listed first on the ballot.
Republicans have occupied the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee since 2000. The law was adopted in 1951, during an 80-year span in which Democrat governors reigned until 1967, with the exception of Prohibition Party Gov. Cary Hardee’s four-year stint between 1921-25.
The Democratic National Committee, Democratic Governors Association, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Priorities USA filed the lawsuit in 2018 against then-Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, arguing the state should devise a new way of listing candidates on ballots.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit on April 29 rejected that claim. In doing so, it lifted U.S. District Judge Mark Walker’s November injunction prohibiting the state from following the law.
In tossing Walker’s order, the panel found the suit wrongly targeted the secretary of state, who is not responsible for printing ballots, and plaintiffs lacked standing to sue Florida’s current Secretary of State, Laurel Lee.
In seeking a rehearing, Democratic organizations disputed the ruling.
“Political parties exist to elect candidates to public office, and Florida’s secretary of state oversees enforcement of Florida’s election laws,” plaintiffs’ attorneys petitioned. “Despite these two irrefutable facts, the panel erroneously concluded that Democratic Party organizations are not injured by an election law that provides a competitive advantage to Republican Party candidates and, even if they were, the secretary has no role in enforcing the law.”
Meanwhile, the state also is seeking a hearing before the full 11th Circuit Court – which includes two DeSantis-appointed former Florida Supreme Court justices – to challenge Hinkle’s decision to invalidate Senate Bill 7066 after an eight-day trial concluded May 6.
In his 125-page decision, Hinkle called the law, adopted by the Republican-controlled Legislature, a “pay-to-vote system” that imposes “a tax by any other name. The requirement to pay fees and costs as a condition of voting is unconstitutional because they are, in substance, taxes."
His ruling requires the Florida Division of Elections (DOE) to ascertain how much a felon owes within 21 days of a status determination request. If DOE cannot do so within that time, it cannot bar the felon from voting, Hinkle wrote.
SB 7066 was adopted in 2019 as “enacting legislation” after nearly 65 percent of voters approved Amendment 4 in November 2018. The measure restored voting rights for felons after completing sentences, excluding those convicted of murder and sexual assault.
In February, an 11th Circuit panel unanimously upheld Hinkle’s October ruling that SB 7066 unconstitutionally denies the right to vote to felons “genuinely unable” to pay court costs.
The panel also upheld Hinkle’s injunction that prevented the state from barring 17 original plaintiffs from voting. He since has granted class certification for one consolidated case, Jones v. DeSantis.
On May 26, DeSantis said the state would appeal.
"There’s obviously good grounds,” he said. “No other court in the country has held this.”
Thirty states require felons pay fines, fees and restitution before regaining voting rights. Attorneys general in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas and Utah jointly submitted an amicus brief supporting Florida.