Florida Can't Stop Ex-Felons From Voting If They Can't Pay Fines, Judge Rules

Desmond Meade, who previously had a felony conviction and is president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, fills out a voter registration form as his wife Sheena looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office on Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.

Desmond Meade, who previously had a felony conviction and is president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, fills out a voter registration form as his wife Sheena looks on at the Supervisor of Elections office on Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. AP Photo


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STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | Virginia's governor caught in crowds without mask ... North Dakota governor tearfully pleads for masks not to be partisan ... County fairs could go on in Nebraska.

A Florida law that prohibited people with felony convictions from regaining the right to vote unless they paid off court fines and fees is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled on Sunday, saying this requirement becomes a poll tax when people truly can’t afford to pay. The decision guts a law passed by Republicans and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year after voters in 2018 approved a ballot measure that restored voting rights for many former felons, which was estimated to benefit 1.4 million people. One analysis filed with the court estimated that around 774,000 people still owe money in the legal system and would not be allowed to register to vote under the 2019 law passed by the Legislature. In a 125-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle found that people who had court-appointed lawyers during their criminal case (a huge portion of defendants), along with people who had their court fines turned into civil liens, will be allowed to register to vote. "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,” Hinkle wrote. The ruling is expected to be appealed. But voting rights advocates celebrated, with one calling it a “landmark decision.” “It’s a decision that will likely affect hundreds of thousands of voters — and it’s been a long time coming,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. One point advocates had argued, and Hinkle noted, is that it can be very difficult for court officials to even figure out how much some former felons owe, particularly if the case is old. The judge wrote that when it came to the plaintiffs in the court case, the state of Florida was unable to work out estimates. “Even with a team of attorneys and unlimited time, the State has been unable to show how much each plaintiff must pay to vote under the State’s view of the law,” Hinkle said. [Tampa Bay Times; New York Times; NPR]

GOVERNORS AND MASKS | Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged he should have worn a mask when he was caught without one in photos in Virginia Beach crowds over the weekend. A Democrat and a doctor, Northam had encouraged mask use to prevent spread of the coronavirus. “The Governor has repeatedly encouraged wearing face coverings inside or when social distancing is impossible,” a spokeswoman said Sunday. “He was outside yesterday and not expecting to be within six feet of anyone. This is an important reminder to always have face coverings in case situations change—we are all learning how to operate in this new normal, and it’s important to be prepared.” In two other states, Republican governors made public appearances urging constituents to not think of masks as partisan. “This is not about politics, this is not about whether you’re liberal or conservative, left or right, Republican, Democrat. You wear the mask not to protect yourself so much as to protect others. And this is one time when we truly are all in this together,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum fought tears during a Friday news conference, saying, "If someone is wearing a mask, they're not doing it to represent what political they're in or what candidates they support; they might be doing it because they have a 5-year-old child who has been going through cancer treatments."  [Washington Post; Associated Press; Grand Forks Herald]

EMERGENCY POWERS | A state judge in Michigan dismissed a lawsuit brought against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by Republican members of the state legislature. The suit questioned the constitutionality of Whitmer's use of emergency powers to issue a statewide lockdown. Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens deemed the suit without merit. Republicans vowed to appeal. [Detroit Free Press]

COUNTY FAIRS | Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said that he would let local leaders make the decision whether or not to hold county fairs or livestock events, usually occasions that draw large crowds. Already some fair managers have said they plan to hold the events throughout the summer. [KNEB]

DECRIMINALIZING MARIJUANA | Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation decriminalizing marijuana possession. The law goes into effect on July 1 and creates a civil violation of no more than $25 for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. [Staunton News Leader]

Laura Maggi is the managing editor at Route Fifty and Emma Coleman is the assistant editor. 

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