Floridians with Prior Felonies Need to Pay Fines Before Voting — But Documents Reveal the State Can’t Properly Track What They Owe

(Photo: Erik Hersman)
EN ESPAÑOL

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. 

MORE ON THE RESTORATION OF VOTING RIGHTS
  • Records from the Leon County Clerk’s Office regarding the implementation of SB 7066: In addition to the conflicting directions mentioned above, this document production contains a legal memo prepared for the county clerks by a private law firm. The memo finds that debt collector fees shouldn’t be included in a person’s balance to be paid off. However, other records in that same production show that Leon County’s contracts allocate partial payments between the county and the debt collector — meaning that some people will be forced to pay debt collection fees in order to regain their right to vote. 
  • Emails between Okaloosa County Clerk of Courts and members of the Restoration of Voting Rights Task Force: This document contains a summary of testimony from Florida Department of Corrections Assistant Secretary Joe Winkler to the RVRTF on Sept. 16, 2019, addressing what his department was doing to implement Amendment 4 and the challenges it had faced in a “still evolving” process.
  • Records from the Florida Department of State regarding the implementation of SB 7066: This production contains emails regarding the process of sharing case files of potentially ineligible voters.

 

en español

A pesar de un fallo reciente de la corte federal que es inconstitucional prohibir a personas con condenas por delitos anteriores a votar si no pueden pagar sus tasas legales, la mayoría de los floridianos anteriormente encarcelados no pueden votar hoy.

En 2018, casi dos tercios de los votantes de Florida aprobaron la Enmienda 4, una medida para restaurar el derecho al voto a más de un millón de floridianos que hayan cumplido con sus condenas. En respuesta, legisladores estatales propusieron SB 7066, una ley requiriendo que los ex-convictos paguen todas sus obligaciones financieras antes de que pueden votar, incluyendo multas de la corte, tasas, y restitución. Desde que se firmó la ley en 2019, las medidas opuestas han sido sujetas a una constante batalla legal. 

El mes pasado, el Tribunal de Apelaciones de los Estados Unidos para el 11 Circuito emitó que los 17 demandantes anteriormente encarcelados no podían ser negados de su derecho al voto como castigo por “genuinamente la incapacidad de pagar tasas, multas, y restitución por cuenta de su indigencia.” Pero la corte no derogó los requisitos de SB 7066, y el fallo sólo aplicó a los demandantes específicos. El gobernador de Florida Ron DeSantis, quien dejó llevar a cabo las elecciones primarias en medio del pandémico de coronavirus, dijo que planea a apelar el fallo a la Corte Suprema.

Mientras tanto, la capacidad de Florida para confirmar si es que y cuanto estos votantes todavía deben sigue siendo una preocupación seria. La investigación de American Oversight sobre la implementación de la Enmienda 4 y la ley opuesta, SB 7066, han revelado que las agencias estatales no están listas para seguir el estatus individual de 1.4 millón de ciudadanos anteriormente encarcelados quien esperan ser concedidos el derecho al voto. Y a pesar de las aserciones anteriores del Departamento de Estado de Florida que dice estar desarrollando una base de datos centralizada, documentos que obtuvimos, que fueron parte del reportaje de FloridaPolitics.com, demuestran que errores humanos como dedazos y nombres mal escritos, errores tipográficos, siguen siendo un desafío, al igual que las directivas a veces confusas del estado.

Un acuerdo interagencial entre el Departamento de Correcciones de Florida y el Departamento de Estado, que fue firmado en 2016 y que obtuvimos en respuesta a una solicitud de registros públicos, dice, “Documentos relacionados con delincuentes con delitos menores, delincuentes bajo supervisión, y delincuentes sentenciados antes de 1998, deben ser obtenidos del apropiado secretario del juzgado.” 

Pero, en enero 2019, secretarios judiciales en el condado de Leon fueron instruidos de otra manera. Un borrador de una advertencia compartida por la directora de cortes criminales del Secretario del Condado de la Corte de Circuito y Contralor del contado de Leon avisó a empleados, “Por costos y multas de la corte en casos con una fecha de sentencia antes del primero de enero, 1998, uno tendrá que contactar al Departamento de Correcciones de Florida por cualquier saldo adeudado, incluyendo cualquier restitución ordenada por el tribunal.” Estas directivas en conflicto con sí mismas que se circulan a través de diferentes agencias parecen confusas desde el exterior.

En junio 2019, con el pasaje de SB 7066 en el horizonte, funcionarios de elecciones en el condado de Leon fueron en busca de clarificación. Un empleado de la oficina del Encargado de Elecciones del condado de Leon contactó a la División de Elecciones de Florida y preguntó por información sobre “cómo avanzará el estado con respecto a proporcionar solicitudes actualizadas de registro de votantes” con el pasaje de SB 7066, que se convirtió en ley el próximo mes.

La dirección por parte de la División de Elecciones – que instruye a los secretarios cómo pueden determinar si una persona está aún encarcelada o bajo la supervisión del estado por un delito grave – parece haber dejado a los funcionarios del condado Leon con más preguntas que respuestas. Una semana después, el encargado de elecciones, Mark Earley, mandó un correo electrónico a la División de Elecciones, diciendo, “Solo quería darte un aviso que… sin detalles más específicos, es muy difícil decir con claridad cuál es el estatus de estos individuos en relación a sus delitos graves.” 

Los funcionarios de elecciones en el condado de Leon no estaban solos en su confusión. En preparación para la implementación de SB 7066, secretarios judiciales a través del estado estaban ejecutando pruebas con 10 casos de muestra para comparar los registros de los secretarios con la información del Departamento de Correcciones. Carolyn Timmann del condado de Martin comentó, “Bueno, esta primera lista corta de mi condado ya está identificando algunos desafíos.” [FL-MARTIN-19-1405-A-104] Problemas como múltiples crímenes graves, registros que fueron escaneados y subidos en bulto en vez de individualmente, números de casos perdidos, y nombres mal escritos hicieron difícil encontrar casos individuales, mucho menos monitorizar el estatus de elegibilidad para votar de un individuo. 

Secretarios de corte en el condado de Hillsborough encontraron que en 4 de 5 casos de muestras, problemas como listas incompletas de tarifas, direcciones viejas, y errores de computadora hicieron imposible poder monitorizar adecuadamente un estatus individual. A pesar de los esfuerzos de secretarios judiciales y funcionarios de elecciones a través del estado, los documentos que obtuvimos sugieren que seguir el estatus de elegibilidad para votar de una persona anteriormente encarcelada fue mucho más desafiante de lo que el estado había esperado.

Para manejar algunos de los desafíos esperados en la implementación de la Enmienda 4, la legislatura formó el Grupo de Trabajo para la Restauración de los Derechos de Voto (RVRTF por sus siglas en inglés). Los miembros tuvieron la tarea de revisar el proceso de verificación del registro de votantes y enviar un informe sobre sus conclusiones. El gobernador DeSantis empezó a apuntar a funcionarios al panel en agosto 2019. La solicitud de American Oversight sobre el Grupo de Trabajo produjo correos electrónicos de agosto y septiembre 2019 relacionados al análisis de los secretarios judiciales del condado de Hernando. Las conversaciones discuten las partes memorables de los 38 condados que completaron revisiones similares. De 38, 28 condados reportaron algunos problemas, como nombres mal escritos, inconsistencias en la información de contacto y cifras ausentes.

Mientras las elecciones generales de 2020 se acercan, los ciudadanos de Florida anteriormente encarcelados seguirán enfrentando obstáculos que les impiden votar hasta que se llegue un acuerdo sólido en la corte. Hasta que llegue ese momento, American Oversight seguirá investigando las trabas que los votantes enfrentan en un esfuerzo para asegurar que se escuchan sus voces. 

MÁS SOBRE LA RESTAURACIÓN DE LOS DERECHOS DE VOTO
  • Registros de la Oficina del Secretario de la Corte en el condado de Leon sobre la implementación de SB 7066: Además de las directivas problemáticas que mencionamos, esta producción contiene un memo legal preparado para los secretarios judiciales por un despacho de abogados privado. El memo encuentra que las tarifas de los cobradores de deudas no deben ser incluidas en el saldo para pagar de una persona. Pero, el memo también nota que algunos contratos de secretarios judiciales asignan pagos parciales entre el condado y el cobrador – significando que algunas personas se verán obligadas a pagar tarifas de cobro de deudas para recuperar su derecho al voto.
  • Correos electrónicos entre el Secretario de la Corte del Condado de Okaloosa y miembros del Grupo de trabajo sobre la restauración de los derechos al voto: Este documento tiene un resumen del testimonio del asistente secretario del Departamento de Correcciones de Florida Joe Winkler al RVRTF el 16 de septiembre, 2019, sobre lo qué estaba haciendo su departamento para implementar la Enmienda 4. Winkler describió el proceso como “sigue evolucionando” y describió algunos de los desafíos que su departamento había enfrentado.
  • Registros del Departamento de Estado de Florida sobre la implementación de SB 7066: Esta producción tiene correos electrónicos sobre el proceso de compartir archivos de casos de votantes potencialmente no elegibles.

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January 2, 2018

New FOIAs Seek Records of Civil Rights Investigations at Department of Education

Department of Education
News
December 19, 2017

American Oversight Sues DOD to Uncover Truth Behind Trump’s Transgender Ban

Department of Defense
Investigation Update
October 4, 2017

DOJ Confirms Harvard Affirmative Action Investigation

Department of Justice
News
September 7, 2017

DACA Announcement Reflects Lack of Seriousness About the Law

Department of Justice
News