(Reuters) - A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Florida can require felons to pay all fines, restitution and legal fees they face before they can regain their right to vote, reversing a lower court ruling that held the measure unconstitutional.
The ruling, by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, could influence the election outcome in November.
Florida is considered a must-win in President Donald’s Trump’s bid for re-election and disenfranchised felons account for a significant voting bloc in a state with a history of tight elections.
The dispute, which could ultimately head to U.S. Supreme Court, centers on whether the law is a way around a voter-approved 2018 measure that aimed to end the state’s lifetime prohibition on voting by ex-felons.
The Republican-controlled Florida legislature passed the law the following year, requiring all former felons to pay off outstanding court debts and legal fees to be eligible to vote.
Voting and civil rights groups sued the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and state election officials over that requirement.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle in May struck down most of the law as unconstitutional, describing it as a “pay to vote” scheme.
The appeals court, dominated by judges appointed by Trump, delayed the decision while it considered on appeal.
On Friday, a majority of the 11-judge panel found the defendants in the case failed to prove the measure violated the constitution, noting the country has a long history of placing restrictions on voting.
The decision was met with frustration by voting rights groups.
“Florida’s voters spoke loud and clear when nearly two-thirds of them supported rights restoration at the ballot box in 2018,” said Paul Smith, vice president at Campaign Legal Center. “Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”
Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.