Federal trial opens over Florida's felon voting law

In this photo taken by her son, Betty Riddle in Sarasota, Fla., Sunday, April 26, 2020, holds the T-shirt she wore on March 17, 2020, when she voted for the first time. She was barred from voting in Florida until a federal judge temporarily blocked the state from preventing her and 16 other felons from voting because of unpaid legal financial obligations. (Courtesy of Rickie Riddle via AP)
In this photo taken by her son, Betty Riddle in Sarasota, Fla., Sunday, April 26, 2020, holds the T-shirt she wore on March 17, 2020, when she voted for the first time. She was barred from voting in Florida until a federal judge temporarily blocked the state from preventing her and 16 other felons from voting because of unpaid legal financial obligations. (Courtesy of Rickie Riddle via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A high-stakes federal trial opened Monday that could allow hundreds of thousands of felons to regain the right to vote in Florida, a battleground state that is expected to hold considerable sway in the November elections.

The state is home to about 1 million felons, possibly many more, who would represent a sizable voting bloc in any election and could help influence the outcomes of razor-thin elections that have become common in a crucial state.

A university study introduced as evidence in the trial being heard in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee suggests that at least 774,000 felons across Florida’s 67 counties are ineligible to vote because of financial debts.

At issue is Amendment 4, a voter-approved ballot measure that gave felons the right to vote.

Months after voters approved the initiative in November 2018, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill later signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis stipulating that felons must pay all fines, restitution and other legal financial obligations before their sentences could be considered fully served.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs described the financial stipulation as taxes imposed by Florida lawmakers as a condition for accessing the ballot box, a burden they said disproportionately blocks blacks and the poor from voting.

“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,” said Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice, among the groups representing plaintiffs.

“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.