Florida trial weighing voting rights for felons begins via video chat amid coronavirus

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A federal trial in Florida to determine whether felons could regain their right to vote began via video and telephone conference on Monday due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Florida has about 1 million felons in the state, but groups representing them at trial are arguing that a recent bill signed by the state's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, which stipulates that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other legal financial obligations before their sentences could be considered fully served, disproportionately blocks blacks and poor constituents from voting. The issue is made even more pressing by the upcoming elections in November, particularly because Florida, with its Republican-held legislature, is a key battleground state.

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DeSantis' bill goes against a voter-approved ballot measure -- Amendment 4 -- which passed in November 2018 and gave felons the right to vote.

“They didn’t just put a price tag on voting. The evidence will show they created a system where returning citizens can’t even tell what the price is,” Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice, among the groups representing plaintiffs, said.

“We’re talking about the voting rights of three-quarters of a million people. Obviously, that’s enough to determine plenty of local or statewide, or even wider, elections,” Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said before the trial. The ACLU also represents some of the plaintiffs in the case.

An attorney for DeSantis and the secretary of state’s office, Mohammad Jazil, argued that Amendment 4 restores voting rights to felons only if they complete the terms of their sentence, including parole and probation, an opinion that the Florida Supreme Court agreed with in their advisory opinion back in January.

“That language is unambiguous,” Jazil told the court. “That language includes the payment of fines, fees, costs, restitution and all other financial terms of the sentence before the restoration of voting rights.”

If upheld, the amendment would block at least 774,000 felons in 67 counties across Florida from voting because they are unable to meet the financial requirements, according to a university study introduced as evidence at trial.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who is presiding over the trial, issued a preliminary injunction against the state in October, which was upheld by a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit four months later.

In March, the Atlanta-based appellate court declined to hear a further appeal backed by the governor.

Although Hinkle's preliminary injunction did not stop Florida from stripping felons of their voting rights if they haven't met their financial obligations as dictated in their sentence, he compared the bill to a poll tax which would prevent poor felons from voting.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.