This evening the district court issued its opinion in Jones v. DeSantis finding, as expected, that Florida’s system for restoring voting rights to those convicted of a felony is unconstitutional. The opinion is at this link, and its summary by the court is below. Additional details of the decision and the court’s order are reported in this article from the New York Times, and we will report further on the case, including next steps, in a few days.
The State of Florida has adopted a system under which nearly a million otherwise-eligible citizens will be allowed to vote only if they pay an amount of money. Most of the citizens lack the financial resources to make the required payment. Many do not know, and some will not be able to find out, how much they must pay. For most, the required payment will consist only of charges the State imposed to fund government operations—taxes in substance though not in name.
The State is on pace to complete its initial screening of the citizens by 2026, or perhaps later, and only then will have an initial opinion about which citizens must pay, and how much they must pay, to be allowed to vote. In the meantime, year after year, federal and state elections will pass. The uncertainty will cause some citizens who are eligible to vote, even on the State’s own view of the law, not to vote, lest they risk criminal prosecution.
This pay-to-vote system would be universally decried as unconstitutional but for one thing: each citizen at issue was convicted, at some point in the past, of a felony offense. A state may disenfranchise felons and impose conditions on their reenfranchisement. But the conditions must pass constitutional scrutiny. Whatever might be said of a rationally constructed system, this one falls short in substantial respects.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has already ruled, in affirming a preliminary injunction in this very case, that the State cannot condition voting on payment of an amount a person is genuinely unable to pay. See Jones v. Governor of Fla., 950 F.3d 795 (11th Cir. 2020). Now, after a full trial on the merits, the plaintiffs’ evidence has grown stronger. This order holds that the State can condition voting on payment of fines and restitution that a person is able to pay but cannot condition voting on payment of amounts a person is unable to pay or on payment of taxes, even those labeled fees or costs. This order puts in place administrative procedures that comport with the Constitution and are less burdensome, on both the State and the citizens, than those the State is currently using to administer the unconstitutional pay-to-vote system.