Newswire: Judge temporarily blocks Florida law restricting voting by ex-Felons, who could not pay fines, fees and restitution

By Michael Wines, New York Times

Florida cannot prevent people with felony convictions from registering to vote if they cannot pay fines and other costs stemming from their convictions, a federal judge ruled on Friday, temporarily blocking a state law that civil rights’ groups have called an unconstitutional “poll tax.”
The ruling was a rebuke to the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and its Republican controlled Legislature. Legislators had enacted a law requiring the fine and fee payments this year after voters resoundingly approved an amendment to the State Constitution that restored voting rights to as many as 1.5 million former felons.
The law was widely seen as an attempt to suppress voting by the former felons, many of them African-Americans or Hispanics who appeared likely to support Democrats.
The injunction technically affects only 17 plaintiffs in the suit challenging the law, all of whom said they lacked the money to pay costs stemming from their convictions. But the principle behind the ruling applies to all people convicted of felonies and will require the state to change its repayment policy if it stands, said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Evidence in the lawsuit indicated that roughly four in five felons who have completed their sentences had unpaid fines, court costs or restitution to victims of their crimes. “People can’t be disenfranchised for outstanding legal financial obligations that they are unable to pay” she said. “Even though the ruling applies only to the individual plaintiffs, the process is obviously problematic” regardless of whom it is applied to.
Voting rights advocates who sought Friday’s ruling hailed the injunction as a crucial step toward limiting the Legislature’s effort to restrict access to the ballot. The decision is “a critical step towards ensuring that the voting rights of other people with felony convictions are not trampled on by Florida officials,” Leah Aden, the deputy director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement. “We will continue to fight for full relief for Florida voters who must not pay to vote.”
Florida officials had no immediate response to the ruling by Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the United States District Court in Tallahassee. The state could challenge the injunction in a higher court, change the law when the Legislature convenes next year or postpone action until a trial in the lawsuit, now scheduled for April, produces a definitive ruling on the law’s legality.
Floridians restored the voting rights of felons who had completed their sentences — except those convicted of murder or sex offenses — in a referendum last November that passed with the backing of nearly 65 percent of voters. The Legislature sought to blunt the effect of the vote by passing a law that included any court-imposed financial obligations linked to a felony in the definition of “sentence.”
The legislators went even further by specifying that those obligations included fines and other costs that had been converted to civil liens, a common court practice applied to costs that felons are unable to pay. Civil liens cancel the criminal nature of the obligations, converting them to ordinary debts like loans or credit card purchases.
By requiring people with felony convictions to pay legal obligations before registering to vote, the lawsuit’s plaintiffs had argued, Florida legislators had effectively created a modern version of the notorious poll taxes used to disenfranchise African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. The United States Constitution’s 24th Amendment did away with the practice, stating that the right to vote in a federal election could not be denied for failure to pay “any poll tax or other tax.”
In his ruling, Judge Hinkle, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, left open the question of whether the repayment provisions were in fact a poll tax. He noted that the drafters of the constitutional amendment approved in November had indicated to the state Supreme Court that fines and other court costs were indeed considered part of a sentence, but he said that it was up to Florida courts to decide whether the amendment approved by voters required their repayment.
In any case, the judge said, it was clear that states have the right to deny voting privileges to people who can afford to pay such costs but choose not to.
But Judge Hinkle said the law was equally clear that Florida cannot refuse to restore a former felon’s voting rights simply because the felon is unable to pay legal debts. In fact, he wrote, a 2005 ruling in the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit involving a Florida felon who was unable to pay restitution stated that “access to the franchise cannot be made to depend on an individual’s financial resources.”
The state can investigate whether a former felon’s claim of poverty is legitimate, the judge wrote, and can establish a process for deciding whether and how voting rights should be restored. But “what the state cannot do,” he wrote, “is deny the right to vote to a felon who would be allowed to vote but for the failure to pay amounts the felon has been genuinely unable to pay.”
Under the preliminary injunction, the judge wrote, the 17 former felons who are plaintiffs in the case can seek to regain their voting rights by proving to the state that they are unable to pay their legal debts.
“When an eligible citizen misses an opportunity to vote, the opportunity is gone forever; the vote cannot later be cast,” he wrote, adding: “Each of these plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state’s only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay. The preliminary injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm to any such plaintiff.”
Micah Kubic, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Florida, hailed the ruling. “The court’s decision is clear: The right to vote cannot be denied to anyone based on their inability to pay,” he said in a statement. “The state must create a clear and unencumbered process that provides Florida’s returning citizens the ability to vote. This is an important win for our democracy.”
Shelley Fearson, Coordinator of the Alabama New South Coalition, said, “We have similar rules in Alabama, where former felons trying to get their voting rights restored face high fees, costs and restitution, which stops them for getting their voting rights back. We will be watching this legal case in Florida to see how it can be used to correct similar problems here in Alabama.”

Newswire : The battle for Florida and Georgia ends in vote recounts

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent @StacyBrownMedia

 Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum

 

The heartache expressed on Tuesday night by the many supporters of Stacey Abrams has suddenly turned to hope after absentee and other ballots counted brought the Georgia Democratic governor hopeful closer to a runoff with Republican Brian Kemp. And, after conceding to Republican Ron DeSantis in Florida on Election night, Tallahassee Mayor and Florida Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum found new life when votes were finally tabulated from the more blue areas of the state like Broward and Miami Dade. Gillum said he conceded based on “the limited information we had.” That’s now changed. As of Friday morning, Gillum was just 0.44 percentage points behind DeSantis, a margin of about 36,000 votes. A margin within 0.5 percentage points triggers an automatic recount, something the Florida Secretary of State would still have to approve. “On Tuesday night, the Gillum for Governor campaign operated with the best information available about the number of outstanding ballots left to count,” Gillum spokeswoman Johanna Cervone said in a statement. “Since that time, it has become clear there are many more uncounted ballots than was originally reported.” The campaign reportedly has hired attorney Barry Richard, who represented the Bush campaign during the contentious 2000 presidential election in Florida, who was “monitoring the situation closely and is ready for any outcome, including a state-mandated recount,” Cervone said. “Mayor Gillum started his campaign for the people, and we are committed to ensuring every single vote in Florida is counted.” Meanwhile, after initial and unofficial tallies in Georgia gave Kemp a seemingly insurmountable lead, absentee and other provisional ballots drew Abrams ever closer and also in the range of recount and possibly a runoff. “All of the votes in this race have not been counted,” Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said at a press conference on Thursday. Under Georgia law, if no candidate achieves a majority, then a runoff election will be held. Kemp currently leads with 50.3 percent of the vote. Abrams is also close to the possible threshold to earn a recount in the race, which, following his resignation, Kemp would now not oversee. “Brian Kemp is 25,622 votes above the threshold for a runoff election. Twenty-five thousand votes of nearly four million cast are at issue in this race,” Groh-Wargo said. “By [Kemp’s] own admission, there are at least 25,000 outstanding votes, and hundreds if not thousands of more that we are learning about and discovering every day.” The state chapter of the NAACP filed a pair of lawsuits claiming that students at Spelman College and Morehouse College were improperly forced to vote with a provisional ballot – or dissuaded from voting at all – because their names didn’t show up on voter registration lists. And the second, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, seeks to preserve the right for voters in the Pittman Park Recreation Center area to cast ballots. That was the precinct where massive lines formed because of too few polling machines. Even after five additional voting devices were delivered, some people waited four hours at the Atlanta site. In a televised interview early Tuesday, former talk show host Melissa Harris-Perry said Gillum and Stacey would change the way Democrats campaign in the south for decades to come. In saying so, Harris-Perry was clear that would be the case regardless of the outcome. “Gillum and Abrams, no matter what, they have changed the idea that Democrats should not be fighting for these seats in the south, and that’s going to have 25 years of impact,” Harris-Perry said. Much had been written about Abrams’ opponent interfering with voting rights and early reports from Georgia indicated that many polling locations were not up and running in a timely fashion. Voters in the Peach state dealt with long lines, malfunctioning election equipment and registration discrepancies as they swamped precincts Tuesday with an unprecedented turnout for a midterm election. Wait times of more than an hour were the most common hurdle facing voters across the state, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. But technical problems, like failing to plug in voting machines, worsened matters for some voters trying to get their ballots in. Three precincts in Gwinnett County had some of the most severe difficulties, causing them to stay open past the normal 7 p.m. closing time, the newspaper reported. The Annistown Elementary precinct remained open until 9:25 p.m. because of extensive issues with the electronic ExpressPoll system, which is used to check in voters before they’re issued voting access cards. Anderson-Livsey Elementary and Harbins Elementary precincts also stayed open late. Three more precincts in Fulton County also stayed open as late as 10 p.m. because of extreme lines, missing registration information and a shortage of provisional ballots. Those precincts were located at Pittman Park Recreation Center, Booker T. Washington High and the Archer Auditorium at Morehouse College. The Rev. Jesse Jackson got involved at the Pittman Park Recreation Center precinct in Fulton County, encouraging voters to remain in line after they had waited for hours. Only three voting machines were initially available before five more were sent out later. “It’s a classic example of voter suppression, denying people easy access to exercise their right to vote,” Jackson said, according to the newspaper.

Newswire :White Supremacists release anti-Andrew Gillum robocall featuring monkey sounds in Florida’s Governors race

 By: Newsone

Andrew Gillum

A representative for Andrew Gillum spoke out Tuesday against a White supremacist website’s racist robocall referring to the African-American Democratic candidate for Governor of Florida as a “negro” and “monkey.” “These disgusting, abhorrent robocalls represent a continuation of the ugliest, most divisive campaign in Florida’s history,” Geoff Burgan told The Huffington Post after Gillum’s acclaimed performance during Sunday night’s debate. “We would hope that these calls, and the dangerous people who are behind them, are not given anymore attention than they already have been.” An actor, presumably hired or associated with the Neo-Nazi website The Road To Power, pretended to be Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate during the call. The actor spoke in an exaggerated stereotypical Black southern voice over music from the minstrel era and “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” a TV sitcom that perpetuated several racist tropes about Black people in the 1950s. The person is heard saying, “Well hello there. I is the Negro Andrew Gillum, and I be asking you to make me governor of this here state of Florida.” A screeching monkey sound is also heard on the horrific robocall, which circulated on Tuesday. The ad veers into more terrible territory when the actor describes Gillum’s health care plan as “quite cheap” because “he’ll just give chicken feet to people as medicine.” The call also mentions that Jewish voters will support Gillum because Jews are “the ones that been putting Negroes in charge over the white folk, just like they done after the Civil War.” After the call ends, a disclaimer points out that The Road To Power website and podcast’s name is responsible for the ad. The Idaho-based group has a history of making racist robocalls, including those previously made against Gillum in August as well as in several other states such as Oregon and Virginia. As to whether Ron DeSantis has anything to do with the racist robocall, his camp fiercely denied any connection and denounced the ad in a statement. DeSantis, however, had blown a racist dog whistle with his comment advising Florida voters not to “monkey up” the election by voting for Gillum.