TagVoter rights

Federal appeals court rejects claim that Georgia requirement that voters pay postage for absentee/mail-in ballots amounts to a poll tax

On Aug. 27, 2021, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision finding that a Georgia law requiring voters to pay the price of postage for returning absentee/mail-in ballots does not constitute an illegal poll tax. The plaintiffs had argued that requiring absentee/mail-in voters to pay the price of postage amounted to levying a poll tax, violating the Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The defendants (state and local election officials) moved to dismiss. A U.S. District Court granted the motion to dismiss, citing “[t]he fact that any registered voter may vote in Georgia on election day without purchasing a stamp, and without undertaking any ‘extra steps’ besides showing up at the voting precinct and complying with generally applicable election regulations.” The plaintiffs then appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

The Eleventh Circuit panel—comprising Judges Elizabeth Branch (a Donald Trump (R) appointee), Britt Grant (another Trump appointee), and Edward Carnes (a George H.W. Bush (R) appointee)—unanimously affirmed the lower court’s ruling. Branch, writing for the court, said, “While voting often involves incidental costs like transportation, parking, child care, taking time off work, and—for those who choose to vote absentee by mail—the cost of a postage stamp, those incidental costs do not mean that Georgia has imposed an unconstitutional poll tax or fee on its voters.”

In response to the ruling, Sean Young, legal director for the Georgia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (which was involved in the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs), said, “We are disappointed in the outcome. The ACLU of Georgia will continue to protect the sacred fundamental right to vote.” Regarding the possibility of an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, Young said, “All legal options remain on the table.”

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U.S. District Judge rules Florida cannot condition voting on financial obligations a felon is unable to pay

On May 24, 2020, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida cannot prevent felony convicts from voting based on fines, fees, or restitution they are unable to pay.

Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a citizen initiative, in 2018 by a vote of 65% in favor to 35% against. The initiative was designed to automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. Under the amendment, voting rights would be restored upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.

Senate Bill 7066 was signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) in June 2019. The bill required convicted felons to complete “all terms of sentence” including full payment of restitution, or any fines, fees, or costs resulting from the conviction before regaining the right to vote. In August 2019, DeSantis asked the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion concerning whether “all terms of sentence” included legal financial obligations (court fees, fines, restitution) and on January 16, 2020, the supreme court found that “all terms of sentence” does include the satisfaction of all legal financial obligations.

Five lawsuits against Senate Bill 7066 were consolidated into one— Kevin Leon Jones et al. vs Ron DeSantis et al.— and the case went to trial on April 27, 2020. Plaintiffs included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Campaign Legal Fund of Washington, D.C. The original plaintiffs in the case were 17 individual plaintiffs and three organizations: the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Orange County Branch of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of Florida.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in that the state can prohibit felons from voting if they have outstanding legal financial obligations (court fees, restitution, fines) that they are able to pay, but that the state cannot prohibit a person from voting if they have outstanding legal financial obligations that they are unable to pay. Hinkle said the system under Senate Bill 7066 was an “unconstitutional pay-to-vote system.”

Hinkle said that felons (a) who could not afford an attorney and were therefore appointed one and (b) who had their legal financial obligations converted to civil liens could register to vote. Other felons who are unable to pay their financial obligations can request a determination from Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee (R), who must issue the determination within 21 days and must include information such as how much money is owed and how the state calculated the amount. If the Secretary of State does not issue the determination within 21 days of receipt, the felon may register to vote.

The plaintiffs argued that provisions of SB 7066 that conditioned voting on the payment of legal financial obligations violated the following:

  • the Eighth Amendment (a prohibition on excessive fines);
  • the First Amendment rights of organizations involved in voter registration activities such as the League of Women Voters;
  • the 19th Amendment by diminishing women’s voting rights “due to their low average incomes compared to men;” and
  • the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The ruling was expected to be appealed by the state.

In October 2019, Hinkle granted a preliminary injunction in Jones v DeSantis case, which applied only to the 17 individual plaintiffs, and provided that the individuals could not be stopped from voting based on the inability to pay legal financial obligations. The state appealed the ruling, and the ruling was later upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

As of 2018, Florida was one of four states—the three others are Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia—where convicted felons do not regain the right to vote, until and unless a state officer or board restores an individual’s voting rights.

District court decides that Alabama elections do not violate Voting Rights Act

On February 5th, U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins ruled that Alabama’s at-large method of electing appellate judges does not dilute the voting power of black citizens.

The case was brought to the court by the NAACP, which contended that Alabama’s mode of at-large elections for appellate judges, as opposed to voting by election districts, disenfranchises black voters. Further, they argued that this is the reason why there have been no black state appellate civil and criminal judges and only three black judges on the Alabama Supreme Court in the last 36 years.

In his 210-page opinion, Justice Watkins argued that two factors lay behind the lack of racial diversity on the Alabama courts: the decline of the Alabama Democratic Party, and the lack of black-preferred candidates on the ballot. “Notwithstanding the recent minimal representation of black-preferred candidates on Alabama’s appellate courts, the evidence demonstrates that reasons other than race better explain the defeat of black-preferred candidates in Alabama’s appellate judicial races.” Justice Watkins stated that the “recent decline of the Alabama Democratic Party and a failure of black-preferred candidates to compete generally are two primary culprits. Plaintiffs presented no evidence that race is the reason for the Party’s current failings or the reason why black-preferred candidates are not running for statewide appellate judge seats.”

The lawsuit sought to alter the selection method of the state to election by districts. The NAACP argued that the state’s method of selection violated two sections of the Voting Rights Act, and obliged the court to prove that the selection method is equally open to black justices and does not hinder black voters’ rights on account of race. They asked the court to find a new method of selection for appellate judges in the state and proposed nine voting districts. Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP, called the decision a “significant disappointment.”

In his opinion Justice Watkins wrote, “African Americans have served at the highest reaches of state government, and they can do so again.”

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