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Federal Judge: Fla. Law Restricting Felons' Voting Rights Is Unconstitutional

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of former felons are one step closer to regaining their right to vote. A federal judge has struck down a Florida law that requires - required felons to settle court fees and fines before they could register to vote. This ruling has far-reaching implications, and it clears the path for many additional Floridians to register in time for November's presidential elections.

Danny Rivero of WLRN in Miami joins us now. Danny, thanks for being here. Can you just start at the beginning really? What led up to this ruling?

DANIEL RIVERO, BYLINE: Right. So in 2018, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution, and that amendment automatically restored the right to vote for most people with felony convictions who had completed all the terms of their sentence. And last year on the heels of that, the legislature here in Florida passed a law defining all terms of a sentence as meaning someone needs to pay all the court-imposed fines, fees and restitution. So that's basically where this started and where that ended up on the judge's desk.

MARTIN: OK. So activist groups challenged this law. What was their argument?

RIVERO: So they said that the law that was passed by the legislature made income the - a barrier to vote - in many cases, the only barrier to blocking someone's ability to vote. And they also said that the Florida law that was passed made it impossible for people to get their voting rights restored, largely because the state was, in many cases, just unable to tell someone exactly how much they owed in the first place.

MARTIN: So what are the practical implications of this ruling now?

RIVERO: So this was a class-action lawsuit. Presumably, it goes into effect immediately. And there's estimates of between 400,000 and 800,000 Floridians that are now going to be newly eligible to vote. This is in a state that the last governor's election we had was decided by only 33,000 votes. And you know, the 2016 presidential race was decided by only about 113,000 votes. So the number of new voters we're potentially going to have here is far greater than that margin.

MARTIN: So any idea how restoring these voting rights could affect the balance of power in Florida?

RIVERO: So you know, the - a disproportionate number of people that are - that have felony convictions in the state of Florida are African American, and African Americans tend to vote with the Democratic Party. But actually, the majority of people that are impacted are white Floridians. And the way that white Floridians vote is much less clear, and it's kind of up in the air as to what that very large group of people will be voting. You know, these are people that haven't been engaged in voters - or in the voting - political process in many years. So it really is kind of up in the air about where these people will swing to.

MARTIN: Might this decision in Florida - could it set a precedent that could be followed in other states?

RIVERO: That is correct. If this goes up and it gets appealed in the appeals court, it would immediately have an impact on Alabama and Georgia, which both border Florida and which both require different kinds of legal fees to be collected before someone regains the right to vote. And there's a lot of talk that this could actually go up to the Supreme Court, and it could affect different states and territories all across the United States.

MARTIN: Danny Rivero of WLRN in Miami. We appreciate it, Danny. Thanks for sharing your reporting.

RIVERO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.