Washington (CNN)Florida can bar ex-felons from voting if they owe court fines or fees associated with their convictions, even if they are unable to pay, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The 6-4 ruling by the full 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling blocking the law.The law, Chief Judge William Pryor wrote in the majority opinion, doesn’t constitute a poll tax. Instead, “it promotes full rehabilitation of returning citizens and ensures full satisfaction of the punishment imposed for the crimes by which felons forfeited the right to vote.””That criminal sentences often include financial obligations does not make this requirement a ‘capricious or irrelevant factor,’ ” Pryor wrote. “Monetary provisions of a sentence are no less a part of the penalty that society imposes for a crime than terms of imprisonment. Indeed, some felons face substantial monetary penalties but little or no prison time.”Visit CNN’s Election Center for full coverage of the 2020 raceRead MoreThe ruling, issued less than two months before the presidential election, marks another chapter in the extensive court battle over the law in a state President Donald Trump won in 2016 by fewer than 113,000 votes over Hillary Clinton, or 1.2% of the vote. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court said Florida can enforce the law while the legal case over its constitutionality plays out, meaning the rule would likely be in place for the November elections.Friday’s ruling overturns a decision from US District Judge Robert Hinkle, who had said the Florida law, in respect to those people who are unable to pay, violates the Constitution. Hinkle called the state’s procedure an “unconstitutional pay-to-vote system.”Convicted felons in Florida had their voting rights restored with a constitutional amendment that passed in November 2018. Amendment 4, which allowed convicted felons who complete “all terms of sentence” the right to vote, passed with nearly 65% of the vote, exceeding the 60% threshold required.View 2020 presidential election pollingAfter Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019, the GOP-led Florida Legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, a bill that clarified “all terms of sentence” to include legal financial obligations such as fines, fees and restitution.Multiple groups, including the Campaign Legal Center and American Civil Liberties Union, filed a flurry of legal challenges arguing the new law was unconstitutional and amounted to a “poll tax.”Paul Smith, vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, called Friday’s decision “deeply disappointing.” “While the full rights restoration envisioned by Amendment 4 has become less likely to be realized this fall, we will continue this fight for all Florida voters, so the full benefits of Amendment 4 will someday be realized,” Smith said in a statement, adding that “nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”Desmond Meade, who runs the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told CNN on Friday that it was “a blow to democracy and a blow to the hundreds of thousands of returning citizens who want to participate and may not have an opportunity to do so.” His group was at the forefront of the 2018 referendum in the state that aimed to restore voting rights for an estimated 1.4 million former felons.Meade said Friday’s decision likely would be appealed to the US Supreme Court. But with Florida’s October 5 deadline to register to vote in the general election fast approaching, Meade said activists are pushing to register as many qualified formerly incarcerated people as possible.In a report submitted to the court at an earlier stage in the legal battle, University of Florida professor Daniel Smith concluded that more than 774,000 people, or about 77% of those with felony convictions, across the state’s 67 counties were ineligible to register to vote because of outstanding financial obligations.Meade’s group has established a program that uses donated funds to help pay off those fines and fees. It has helped about 4,000 people so far.But Meade said activists also are working to reach a large pool of former felons — more than 600,000 — who likely do not have outstanding financial obligations but may be unaware that they are eligible to register to vote right now. “The majority of folks do not know,” he said.This story has been updated with more reaction and context.