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Major Trial Begins Over Florida Felon Voting Rights

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A federal civil rights trial began this week that will determine the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions. You may remember that a year and a half ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing people who had completed their sentences to vote. But soon after the vote, the Republican-majority legislature passed a bill requiring all people convicted of felonies to pay legal financial obligations before being eligible to vote.

Opponents are calling this a modern-day poll tax, and a host of nonprofit organizations, including the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued the state over that law, which has led to this trial which began on Monday. We wanted to learn more about the case, so we've called Daniel Rivero. He is a reporter from member station WLRN in Miami, and he's been following the trial from the beginning. And he's with us now.

Daniel Rivero, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DANIEL RIVERO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, could you just tell us about the logistics here? I understand that it's all been held virtually. What's that been like?

RIVERO: It's been a learning process. You know, the people involved in the trial - the attorneys, the witnesses, the judges themselves - they're on a video chat. We don't have access to the video chat, but there is a public call-in number that anyone from anywhere in the country can call into and listen to the proceedings.

There's been some hiccups. The judge is kind of doubling as an IT manager at the same time. He's telling people, you've got to mute yourself, you know - hit the F5 button. So it's been a little bit colorful in that way. But it's been surprisingly smooth at the same time.

MARTIN: That's interesting. So explain a bit more, if you would, about what's actually being decided in the trial. And then, if you would, tell us what the main arguments are.

RIVERO: What Florida voters passed in 2018 said that people with felony convictions in the state can vote if they complete all the terms of their sentence. The problem with that was that in Florida law, the definition of what completing all terms of a sentence was - it was never defined. So the state legislature came in, and they said, this means you need to pay all fines, fees, restitution - any financial obligation is what they're calling it - that's related to that case. And we know that the vast majority of people that have felony convictions are poor.

And, you know, the argument on the plaintiff's side is very simple - that the only barrier between them and the right to vote is money. And in a lot of cases, it's thousands and thousands of dollars. And, you know, you come out of jail, you come out of prison, you have a felony conviction, it's really hard to get a good-paying job.

So a lot of people are struggling day to day, and they say that this is an impossible barrier that essentially amounts to a lifetime sentence because they will never - if you calculate how much they're able to pay, if anything at all, they'll never be able to pay this off. And on the state's side, the argument is that, well, that is the sentence, you know? Until you complete a sentence, then you can't do it.

MARTIN: So did something happen this week?

RIVERO: Yeah. So this week, we heard five days of argument and testimony. It's mostly been on the plaintiff's side. But we have heard from some plaintiffs themselves saying that they're just completely unable to pay what they owe.

And we've also heard from a variety of officials - you know, local elections officials, public defenders - just about how complicated it is to even carry out the plan that the state has carried out because the problem is in Florida, there is no centralized database of who owes what kind of money or who paid what money that they owed at some point.

And, you know, state officials have said it as much in depositions that they had that there is actually just no way to track who owes what kind of money is owed. So a lot of the plaintiffs are just left not even knowing what they owe. They don't even know where to start the process of getting the right to vote back.

MARTIN: Daniel, before we let you go, what's the timeline of this? Is there a sense that this could be resolved by November's election?

RIVERO: So the judge, Judge Robert Hinkle - he has been very clear - and it's part of the reason that this virtual kind of unorthodox trial is going forward in the middle of a pandemic - he's been very clear that he wants this to be all settled before the November election. You know, it's become a class action suit, so any way that this goes, if the plaintiffs are - you know, come out victorious, hundreds of thousands of extra Floridians will be able to vote in the November election. And the judge has made it very clear that he wants it all to be settled before then.

MARTIN: That was Daniel Rivero of WLRN.

Daniel Rivero, thank you so much for talking to us. Thanks for your reporting.

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