Lawsuit targets new Florida law that creates a ‘bureaucratic morass’ in felons voting

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Vote-by-mail ballot dropoff sign in Pinellas County, Florida. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (Oct. 2018).

By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Calling the state a “national embarrassment,” a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and other elected officials of failing “to realize the promise” of a 2018 constitutional amendment aimed at restoring voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences.

The lawsuit, filed by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and individual plaintiffs, described a “bureaucratic morass” encountered by felons trying to find out if they are eligible to vote.

The confusion stems from a controversial 2019 law that DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed to carry out the constitutional amendment, which said voting rights would be restored “upon completion of all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The law required felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines and other court costs — associated with their convictions before they could be eligible to vote.

Wednesday’s lawsuit accused state and local officials of thwarting the intent of what was known as Amendment 4, which 65 percent of Florida voters supported.

“The defendants have used the legislative process, criminal enforcement and taxpayer dollars to frustrate the will of Florida voters, as expressed in their overwhelming support for Amendment 4, to return the franchise to more than 1.4 million citizens in Florida,” the 74-page lawsuit, filed in the federal Southern District of Florida, said.

Defendants include DeSantis, Secretary of State Cord Byrd, supervisors of elections, county clerks of court, members of the state Commission on Offender Review, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass and Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon.

The lawsuit asks a judge to order the state “to establish a reliable statewide database that allows people with prior felony convictions” to determine whether they have outstanding legal financial obligations or are eligible to vote.

Felons trying to determine eligibility often have to navigate a byzantine system of combing through court records to see if they have outstanding fees and fines. The state lacks a single repository where such information can be found.

The state Division of Elections, run by Byrd, scrubs voter registration applications to determine eligibility. County elections supervisors are responsible for removing ineligible voters from the rolls.

But the lawsuit, in part, maintained that a lack of uniformity in the way the state’s 67 counties determine eligibility makes the process unconstitutional. As an example, county clerks of court calculate what costs comprise “legal financial obligations” in different ways, according to the lawsuit.

“The defendants have created and encouraged a chaotic and broken system that is incapable of collecting and assessing the necessary information, particularly data related to LFOs (legal financial obligations), to determine the voting eligibility of people with prior felony convictions,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote.

Last year’s creation of the state Office of Election Crimes and Security — dubbed by critics as the “elections police” — has exacerbated the problem, the lawsuit said. The Legislature included $1.4 million for the office in the 2023-2024 state budget, which took effect July 1. Lawmakers steered $1.2 million to the program last year,

DeSantis last August announced the arrests of 20 people for voting illegally in what he called the “opening salvo” for the office, which opened in July 2022. Many of the people who were arrested maintained that they were convicted felons who believed they were eligible to vote and were provided voter registration cards by elections officials.

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told reporters Wednesday that his group has worked for years with state and local officials to develop a system to ensure voters are eligible.

“Florida cannot have safe and secure elections if people do not have clarity … and the state needs to own up to its responsibility,” Meade said.

Felons trying to ascertain their eligibility can seek what is known as an “advisory opinion” from Byrd’s office. But the lawsuit contended the opinions do not clearly say whether someone is eligible and that the Department of State, which includes the Division of Elections, has a backlog of “tens of thousands of voter registration applications” awaiting review.

A failure to properly inform people about their voting eligibility “has resulted in a free-for-all by which various defendants … apply inconsistent and often incorrect legal analyses to … inaccurate information concerning whether people with prior felony convictions have completed their financial terms of sentence, in a complex labyrinth of misadministration that can only be described as ‘so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement,’” said the lawsuit, which also alleges the state process violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

State and local officials “have created and perpetuated barriers to the automatic restoration of voting rights pursuant to Amendment 4 by providing incomplete, inconsistent, and unreliable information, or refusing to provide any information at all, to citizens with prior felony convictions. This is a national embarrassment, notwithstanding the presence of a clear solution to the problem,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued.

The lawsuit pointed to a process used by Alabama, which issues a “voter information card” after the Bureau of Parole and Pardons has determined a convicted felon’s eligibility.

“If Alabama can create a process to confirm the eligibility of its voters, Florida should be able to do so,” the lawsuit said.

The 2019 law requiring payment of fees and fines was the focus of protracted litigation. A federal judge found the law was unconstitutional, but the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision in a 6-4 ruling.

Meade, whose group was not a plaintiff in the challenge to the 2019 law, said the lawsuit filed Wednesday was not an attempt to “relitigate” the issue. He pointed to the arrests of people who erroneously believed they were eligible to vote as the “nail on the head” that sparked the lawsuit.

“We had no further option but to go to the courts and ask the courts to compel the state to do something very simple that they should have done years ago, and that is to do their job,” he said. “It is their responsibility.”

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