“This ruling runs counter to the foundational principle that Americans do not have to pay to vote,” Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the A.C.L.U.’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated. It is an affront to the spirit of democracy.”
The civil rights groups representing the felons pledged to keep fighting and could appeal to the Supreme Court. But the court has already sided once in the case with the state of Florida, rejecting an emergency application to lift the appeals court’s stay while the outcome was pending.
In a statement, Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for Mr. DeSantis, said Friday’s decision underscored that Amendment 4, as the referendum was known, would restore the rights of felons only if they had completed the entirety of sentences, including paying court fines and fees. (At the time Amendment 4 passed, Florida was one of three states that prevented people with felony records from voting.)
“All terms of a sentence means all terms,” Mr. Piccolo said. “There are multiple avenues to restore rights, pay off debts and seek financial forgiveness from one’s victims. Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive.”
Four judges dissented in a pair of lengthy and scathing opinions. “I doubt that today’s decision — which blesses Florida’s neutering of Amendment 4 — will be viewed as kindly by history,” Judge Adalberto Jordan, who was appointed to the appeals court by President Barack Obama, wrote in one of them.
The DeSantis administration has argued that voters knew that felons would have to pay their outstanding debts before becoming eligible to vote. The state has no centralized system to let felons know how much they might owe, and the appeals court said states were not required to provide a process for felons to learn whether they are eligible.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which organized the Amendment 4 campaign, has raised about $4 million to help more than 4,000 “returning citizens” pay their outstanding court fines and fees, according to Neil G. Volz, the coalition’s political director.