With the deadline to register to vote in Florida’s August primary election 12 days away, a group of Florida voters and civil rights groups today asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a ruling by a federal trial court that struck down a state law that requires Florida residents who have been convicted of a felony to pay all court fees and costs before voting. An order by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that put the trial court’s ruling on hold, the voters argue, “creates chaos and confusion about who can and cannot vote, where a wrong guess creates the risk of criminal prosecution.” The potential impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling is immense, the voters add, for three-quarters of a million Floridians who may now be uncertain about their eligibility to vote as a result of the 11th Circuit’s order.
In November 2018, voters in Florida adopted an amendment to the state’s constitution that allows people with prior felony convictions to vote once they complete “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Seven months later, the state’s legislature passed a law that conditioned the right to vote for former felons on the payment of all court costs, fees and fines. Voters challenged the law, arguing (among other things) that it is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of wealth. A federal district court agreed and temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the law. The 11th Circuit upheld that ruling in February.
After a trial, the district court issued a new ruling in May that concluded that the law also violates the U.S. Constitution’s 24th Amendment, which bans poll taxes. Moreover, the district court added, it could take years for the state to determine how much would-be voters must pay before they can vote – which in turn deters voters from registering at all, out of fear they will be charged with voter fraud if they make a mistake. Florida appealed again to the 11th Circuit, which on July 1 granted the state’s request to have the full court hear the case and to put the district court’s ruling on hold while the appeals proceed.
In their filing today, the voters urged the Supreme Court to lift the 11th Circuit’s stay and reinstate the district court’s ruling. Citing the court’s 2006 decision in Purcell v. Gonzalez, which stands for the principle that courts should be wary about making changes in the run-up to an election, the voters complained that the 11th Circuit’s order “has created triple the ‘confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls’” as the Supreme Court found in Purcell. And it did so, the voters continued, “just three weeks before the registration deadline for the August primary” and “after vote-by-mail applications were already received and just as ballots were mailed to overseas voters.” The Florida primary is on Aug. 18, and the registration deadline is July 20.
In a statement, Paul Smith of the Campaign Legal Center, which represents the voters, urged the justices to “allow the District Court’s order to remain in effect as the State’s appeal is reviewed. Florida’s voters have spoken,” Smith continued, “loud and clear—nearly two-thirds of them supported rights restoration at the ballot box in 2018. This case is about the bedrock principle that voting rights cannot be reserved for those who can afford to pay for them.”
The voters’ request in Raysor v. DeSantis will go to Justice Clarence Thomas, who fields emergency applications from the 11th Circuit. Thomas can act on the request on his own or, as is more likely, refer it to the whole court.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.