In Florida, a felony conviction has historically meant the end of your ability to vote — a restriction that hails back to Jim Crow-era laws and tends to affect black voters disproportionally.

Amendment 4, or the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, was supposed to enact the will of the people. In 2018, Floridians overwhelmingly voted to give the majority of felons their voting rights back after they’d completed their sentence and any parole or probation.

Then the legislature stepped in. Republican lawmakers weren’t happy with Amendment 4. They quickly imposed a new ruling that required felons who wanted to vote again to pay off any restitution, fines or fees that came with their convictions before they could regain the privilege.

The courts say that essentially creates a division between wealthy defendants and poor ones that’s neither fair nor legal. In October, 17 plaintiffs sought and achieved an injunction against the state so that they could register to vote. Now, an appeals court has affirmed that decision. The court said, “It is undeniable that requiring payback punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can.” The state’s interest in upholding justice, the court noted, doesn’t give it a license to erect barriers that only apply to the poor.

As it gets closer to the 2020 elections, you can expect both sides of the dispute to continue to fight for their position, so it’s unlikely that this will be the last court action on the matter. In the meantime, it’s important for defendants facing federal charges to proactively assert their rights and seek experienced legal guidance.

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