Despite a recent federal court ruling that it is unconstitutional to bar people with prior felony convictions from voting if they cannot pay off their legal fees, most formerly incarcerated Floridians will not be able to cast their votes today.
In 2018, nearly two-thirds of Florida’s voters passed Amendment 4, a ballot measure that would restore voting rights to more than a million formerly incarcerated citizens. In response, state legislators passed SB 7066, a law requiring that former felons pay off all financial obligations before they can vote, including court-imposed fines, fees, and restitution. Since SB 7066 was signed into law in 2019, it and Amendment 4 have been the subject of an ongoing legal battle.
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that 17 formerly incarcerated plaintiffs could not be denied their constitutional right to vote as punishment for being “genuinely unable to pay fees, fines, and restitution on account of their indigency.” The court did not strike down SB 7066’s requirements, however, and the ruling only applied to the specific plaintiffs. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has forged ahead with the primary vote in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, said he plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Florida’s ability to confirm whether and what those voters might still owe remains a serious concern. American Oversight’s investigation into the implementation of Amendment 4 and the contrary SB 7066 has revealed that state agencies are not prepared to track the individual statuses of all 1.4 million formerly incarcerated citizens who may hope to be re-enfranchised. And despite the Florida Department of State’s previous assurances that it is developing a centralized database, documents we obtained, written about by FloridaPolitics.com, showed that human errors like misspelled names and typos continue to pose a challenge, as did sometimes confusing directives from the state.
One interagency agreement between the Florida Department of Corrections and the Department of State, which was signed in 2016 and which we received in response to a public records request, says, “Documents relating to misdemeanor offenders, offenders under supervision, and offenders sentenced prior to 1998 should be obtained from the appropriate clerks of court.”
However, in January 2019, Leon County officials were instructed otherwise. A draft notice shared with employees by the Leon County director of criminal courts advises, “For court costs and fines in cases with a sentencing date earlier than January 1, 1998, one will need to contact the Florida Department of Corrections for any balances owed, including any court ordered restitution.” These conflicting directions circulating through different agencies seem confusing from the outside.
In June 2019, with SB 7066’s passage on the horizon, election officials in Leon County sought out clarification on how the new law would be implemented. A staffer from the Leon County Supervisor of Elections office reached out to the Florida Division of Elections, asking for information on “how the state is going to move forward in regards to providing updated voter registration applications” with passage of SB 7066, which was signed into law the next month.
The guidance from the Division of Elections — which instructed clerks on how to determine if a person is still incarcerated or under state supervision for a felony conviction — seems to have left Leon County officials with more questions than answers. A week later, the county supervisor of elections, Mark Earley, emailed the Division of Elections, saying, “I just wanted to give you a heads up that… without more specific details, it is very difficult to say with any clarity what the status of these individuals in relation to felony conviction actually is.”
Leon County elections officials were not alone in their confusion. To prepare for implementation of SB 7066, clerks of court across the state were running tests of 10 sample cases to compare clerk records with information from the Department of Corrections. Carolyn Timmann of Martin County remarked, “Well, this first short list for my county is already identifying some challenges.” Issues like multiple felony convictions, files scanned and uploaded in bulk instead of individually, missing case numbers, and misspelled names made it difficult to track down individual cases, let alone track the individual’s voting eligibility status.
Hillsborough County clerks found that in 4 out of 5 sample cases, issues including incomplete fee listings, old addresses, and computer errors made it impossible to properly track an individual’s status. Despite the efforts of clerks and election officials across the state, documents suggest that tracking a former felon’s voting eligibility status was more challenging than the state had expected.
To manage some of the expected difficulties in the implementation of Amendment 4, the legislature created the Restoration of Voting Rights Task Force (RVRTF). Gov. DeSantis began appointing officials to the panel in August 2019, and members were tasked with reviewing the voter registration verification process and submitting a report on their findings. American Oversight’s records request related to the RVRTF yielded emails from August and September 2019 related to Hernando County’s clerk review of data. The conversations discuss takeaways from 38 counties that had conducted similar review. Of the 38, 28 counties reported some issues, including name misspellings, contact information inconsistencies, and missing figures.
As the 2020 general election draws nearer, Florida’s formerly incarcerated citizens will continue to face hurdles that prevent them from voting until a concrete resolution is reached through the courts. Until then, American Oversight will investigate the obstacles that voters face in an effort to ensure that their voices are heard.
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