Four advocacy groups have filed a preliminary motion in federal court to stop Florida from enforcing its recently adopted bill requiring former convicts to repay all fees and restitution before being eligible to vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law say Senate Bill 7066 violates the intent of 64.5 percent of state voters who approved Amendment 4 in November to restore voting rights for as many as 1.4 million felons.
The group’s filed their motion for a preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida in Tallahassee on Thursday and issued a press release on the legal maneuver Saturday.
The groups are among participants in four lawsuits lodged against the state within hours – in one case, minutes – of Gov. Ron DeSantis signing SB 7066 into law on June 28.
In seeking an injunction, opponents are asking a federal judge to suspend the law’s enforcement until the suits are heard in court.
When that will occur remains unknown with the recent recusal of U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in the case because an attorney for two defendants – Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Broward County Supervisor of Elections Peter Antonacci – hired an attorney from his wife’s Tallahassee law firm.
As in the lawsuits, the Aug. 2 motion levels the same allegations in claiming SB 7066 unjustly and unconstitutionally denies “newly re-enfranchised voters” their rights based on an inability to pay fines.
In its Saturday news release, the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program cited a preliminary analysis of outstanding legal financial obligations in 48 Florida counties by University of Florida Political Science Department Chair Daniel A. Smith that revealed only 66,108 of the 375,256 individuals with a felony conviction – one in five – would be eligible to vote under SB 7066.
In 47 of the 48 countries, white convicts released from supervision were more likely, per capita, to be free of financial obligations and eligible to vote under SB 7066 than black convicts, the motion claims, adding, “SB 7066 has a clear and significant race and class impact on Floridians and will disproportionately impact black individuals.”
The motion also says without a centralized database containing information on who is permitted to vote, “the state wholly unprepared to implement SB 7066, which could wreak havoc on elections administration and cause Floridians to lose confidence in the state’s election system.”
The lack of uniform standards, the complaint reads, “will inevitably lead to the law being applied unequally to similarly situated voters and to the unjust and unconstitutional deprivation of the right to vote for countless Floridians who should in fact be able to register.”
Brennan Center Democracy Program Senior Counsel Sean Morales-Doyle said since the law went into effect, “already it is confusing potential voters and election administrators. Supervisors of Elections don’t know whether returning citizens are eligible to vote, and potential voters are being turned away. We’re asking the court to put an end to this chaos.”
After November’s vote to restore felons’ voting rights, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the constitutional amendment required an “implementing” bill.
During the ensuing legislative session, Republican lawmakers installed a requirement that felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote into the “implementing” bill, claiming it was a concession that supporters agreed to when the proposed amendment was reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court.
Although SB 7066 allows felons to petition a judge to waive fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours, opponents argue including financial obligations, which for some can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in restitution, is essentially a financial disqualification – “a poll tax” – for many felons who can often only find low-wage work.
Following contentious hearings and capital protests, SB 7066 was adopted by the Senate in a 22-17 vote and by the House in a 67-42 tally. Both votes were strictly partisan, with Democrats in opposition.
“We have been saying that this law has sought to remove people’s eligibility to vote and participate in our democracy. We now have additional evidence that supports that fact,” ACLU of Florida Legal Director Daniel Tilley said. “Whether it was by enforcing literacy tests or requiring poll taxes, politicians have tried to restrict access to the ballot box throughout our country’s history and particularly for African Americans. Our legislature and governor have carried on that sordid history through SB7066. Despite this, we are committed to fighting to end barriers to voting.”
“Politicians cannot legally place a price tag on a person’s right to vote. It’s past time for over a million Floridians to reclaim their place in democracy,” ACLU Racial Justice Program staff attorney Orion Danjuma said.