ORLANDO, Fla. — The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that convicted, non-violent felons in Florida who have completed their sentences cannot exercise their right to vote until they have paid off any owed legal fees, fines or restitution. 

What You Need To Know

  • Federal appeals court reverses lower court order on Florida felon voting

  • 11th Circuit Court: Felons must pay all restitution before voting rights restored

  • Amendment 4 restores voting rights but legal dispute arose over implementation

  • Decision by Circuit Court likely to impact this year's elections, political analysts say

Previously, the 11th District Court of Appeals held in February that Florida could not restrict former felons from voting if they couldn’t afford to pay their legal fees. The legal dispute arose after Florida voters aoproved Amendment 4 in 2018, and it states that felons who have completed their sentences would have voting rights restored. In 2019, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature defined what it means to complete a sentence, stipulating that time must be served and all legal financial obligations, including unpaid fines and restitution, would have to be settled before a felon could be eligible to vote. 

Friday's ruling holds that those legal fees are part of the felon’s sentence and must be paid before the felon is able to vote.

The decision means potentially hundreds of thousands of Florida residents who thought they might be able to vote in November’s election now will not be eligible. 

“Bottom line is, for this upcoming election, the vote of felons and former felons probably will not have a big impact, will not be decisive on who wins Florida,” according to Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s School of Politics, Security and International Affairs.

Jewett also pointed out that any felons who registered to vote after the February ruling may find themselves in a bind, if they still owe legal fees. 

Orange County resident Cecilia Washington is a convicted felon who will be able to vote in November, thanks to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. It’s a grassroots organization run by former felons, or “returning citizens.  The coalition paid the approximately $6,500 in legal fees Washington owed last December, she said. 

“It’s a lifetime change,” Washington said. “I’m very excited to go vote … this year.”

But other felons who still owe legal fees won’t be able to enjoy the same opportunity —  and Washington said that isn’t right.

“Just because we made a mistake shouldn't affect our life for the rest of our life,” she said.

Florida Rights Restoration Coalition President Desmond Meade agreed.

“When I first heard this news, the first thing I thought was that this was a massive blow to democracy. And to the hundreds of thousands of people who want to participate in elections but are too poor to do so,” Meade said.

Meade, himself a felon, said his group will not stop trying to help felons pay off their legal fees and exercise their democratic right to vote.

“At the end of the day, this election now is the most critical election this country has ever seen,” Meade said. “And every American citizen should have an opportunity to weigh in — to decide the direction of this country.”

Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

PODCAST: Amendment 4 Activist Desmond Meade

In our latest episode of Central Florida: Beyond the Soundbite, Desmond Meade talks about the fight to restoring voting rights to most nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences, and why it's not over.