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Class Action Could Restore Voting Rights of Former Criminal Offenders in FL

A federal appeals court's decision is seen as a setback for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a series of legal challenges from a Republican-led effort to make ex-felons pay court-ordered fines and fees before they can vote. (FRRC)
A federal appeals court's decision is seen as a setback for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a series of legal challenges from a Republican-led effort to make ex-felons pay court-ordered fines and fees before they can vote. (FRRC)
April 6, 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the quest to restore voting rights to the nearly 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions, there is new hope that a class action designation will make that possible.

Last week, a federal appeals court rejected a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis to review a prior decision which blocked a state law requiring former felons to pay back all legal financial obligations before they vote.

Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the ruling, like all of the other favorable rulings in the case, only applies to the 17 plaintiffs challenging the law. But that could change.

"Now that the judge is considering making this case a class action, then anything positive coming out of the courts would apply to more than just the 17 people," Meade said. "And that is amazing."

In a statement, the governor's communications office said "we are disappointed in the denial of a rehearing before the full court; nonetheless, the case is going to full trial in three weeks." The trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida is scheduled to begin on April 27.

Meade said despite challenges, roughly 20,000 people with prior felony convictions have visited their website to begin the process of registering to vote, and to connect with sister organizations helping to pay outstanding fines and fees for those in need.

"We estimate at, I would say, around 50,000 returning citizens throughout the state are registered voters," he said.

The state law mandating that fines and fees must be paid before voting rights are restored has been described as a modern-day poll tax, a fee once imposed on would-be voters intended to suppress black votes. A study by University of Florida political science chairman Dan Smith found the law would prevent more than 80% of those trying from having their rights restored.

Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - FL