A federal lawsuit filed by two Duval County women Monday is the fourth lodged against the state since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that requires felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before their voting rights are restored.
The latest lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, joins three filed in Gainesville on Friday and Saturday claiming Senate Bill 7066 violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause by imposing a “poll tax” and excessive fines on felons.
The lawsuits argue that when Floridians approved Amendment 4 to restore as many as 1.4 million felons’ voting rights by a 64.5 percent margin in November, there was no mention on the ballot of placing conditions on that restoration such as paying all court costs, including restitution, first.
But after assuming office in January, DeSantis said the constitutional amendment required an “implementing bill.”
During the legislative session, Republican lawmakers installed the requirement that felons pay all fines, fees and restitution before being eligible to vote, claiming it was a concession supporters had 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 argued that including financial obligations, which for some can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in restitution, is essentially a financial disqualification for many felons who often can 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.
After DeSantis signed the bill into law Friday evening – the last day he could do so before it went into effect automatically – a 74-page complaint was filed, literally, minutes later in Gainesville by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
In the first of two lawsuits filed Friday night, the groups claimed making felons’ right to vote conditional on whether they can afford to pay fines and restitution violate the First,14th, 15th and 21st amendments.
“The financial restrictions this law places on the right to vote will have a disproportionate impact on Black and low-income citizens,” League of Women Voters of Florida President Patricia Brigham said in a statement. “It is for this reason that we have filed suit in federal court to overturn this blatant attempt at voter suppression.”
The Campaign Legal Center announced on Saturday that it had filed a third federal lawsuit challenging the new law.
On Monday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a fourth lawsuit on behalf of Rosemary Osborne McCoy, 61, and Sheila Diana Singleton, 56, of Duval County, claiming the new law denies their “right to vote based purely on their low-income economic status.”
The lawsuit argues the financial requirement “is a direct contravention of the clear and unambiguous language in Amendment 4” and that it violates the 14th, 24th – which outlawed poll taxes – and 8th amendments.
According to the lawsuit, McCoy and Singleton were convicted of felonies, served full sentences in prison, completed probation, paid court fines and fees. McCoy served two years in prison for 2015 felony convictions for racketeering, fraud and grand theft.
Singleton served six months in jail and three years probation for a 2011 felony conviction of exploiting the elderly.
They both registered to vote earlier this year and cast ballots in spring elections. But then each were was informed she still owes thousands of dollars in court-ordered restitution payments, making them ineligible to vote. McCoy owes $7,531 and Singleton at least $14,913, according to the suit.
“Neither Plaintiff McCoy nor Plaintiff Singleton have the financial means to satisfy their monetary obligations as a precondition to being eligible to vote pursuant to Senate Bill 7066,” the lawsuit claims. “Under Senate Bill 7066, Plaintiffs’ eligibility to vote is based entirely on their financial status.”
The suit maintains McCoy and Singleton volunteer in their community and “work every day to address the very poverty-related issues that contributed to their own mistakes,” encouraging young people to avoid their mistakes and to vote, the suit states.