Flagged voter lists to include felons with court debts

Florida News

FILE – In this March 17, 2020 file photo, voters head to a polling station to vote in Florida’s primary election in Orlando, Fla. Florida felons must pay all fines, restitution and legal fees before they can regain their right to vote, a federal appellate court ruled Friday, Sept, 11. Reversing a lower court judge’s decision that gave Florida felons the right to vote regardless of outstanding legal obligations, the order from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was a disappointment to voting rights activists and could have national implications in November’s presidential election. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Florida elections officials this week told local supervisors of elections that convicted felons with outstanding court-ordered debts will be included in lists of flagged voters who should potentially be removed from the rolls.

The move came more than a year after the passage of a controversial state law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fines, fees, costs and restitution — associated with their convictions to be eligible to vote.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the law to implement a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole and probation,” excluding murderers and felony sexual offenders.

Voting-rights groups challenged the constitutionality of the 2019 law, likening it to imposing a “poll tax” on felons seeing to vote. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month sided with Gov. Ron DeSantis and overturned a federal district judge’s May ruling that found the law was unconstitutional.

Under a process that’s long been in place, state elections officials screen voter-registration applications for eligibility and send lists of flagged people to county supervisors of elections. Local officials have the authority to remove ineligible people from the voting rolls.

Word of the move to include felons with outstanding financial obligations on the lists sent to supervisors, first reported by Politico Florida, came as more than 2.2 million Floridians have already cast mail-in ballots in the Nov. 3 general election and as early-voting sites begin to open Monday in much of the state.

“Obviously if somebody was registered and voted, there’s not going to be anything you can do about that ballot,” Ron Labasky, general counsel of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association, told The News Service of Florida on Friday.

Voters flagged by the state won’t be scrapped from the rolls before the November election because of a law that requires voters to be given notice and provided time to prove they are eligible to vote.

Intentionally registering and voting when people know they are ineligible is a felony, under Florida law.

Backers of the 2018 constitutional amendment said that it would restore voting rights to more than 1 million Florida felons, but confusion about a series of contradictory court rulings, discrepancies or missing records, and outstanding legal financial obligations have resulted in just a fraction of that number registering to vote.

The effort to clear felons’ court-related debts has drawn support from celebrities, musicians and superstar athletes, such as John Legend, LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

But felons have encountered significant interference when trying to determine how much they were ordered to pay when they were convicted and whether they still have outstanding fines and fees.

Tuesday’s missive from Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews to county supervisors noted that they “will begin to see, within the existing flow of electronically submitted files of potentially ineligible registered voters who are convicted felons, those whose potential ineligibility is based on not having satisfied the legal financial obligations of their sentence.”

Local elections officials contacted Friday said they were not surprised that the Division of Elections would include felons with outstanding financial obligations in what are called “eligibility packets,” especially after the federal appeals court’s Sept. 11 ruling cleared up any doubt about the status of the 2019 law.

“The mandates for the division and the requirements for eligibility have been finalized. The division has to follow the law,” Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said in a phone interview.

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer pointed out that state officials have long been engaged in the process of identifying ineligible voters.

“This is the normal process that’s been taking place for years. It’s nothing new,” Latimer said.

Nobody flagged at this point will be removed from the voting rolls prior to the Nov. 3 election, Latimer said.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said, adding that it could take up to 90 days for the notification and response process to be complete.

But that’s why the timing of Matthews’ email gave Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley pause.

“If we can’t remove anyone now, why are we getting the memo right before the start of early voting and after we’ve already gotten back record numbers of vote by mail? There might be a logical reason. I’m just not aware of it,” he told the News Service.

Voting-rights groups issued a statement Friday accusing state elections officials of trying to scare felons from voting.

“In short, there is insufficient time before Election Day for any voter to be removed from the rolls under Florida state law,” said the statement by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Florida’s proposed action is simply an attempt to scare people with felony convictions away from voting and constitutes voter intimidation — par for the course in Florida.”

In a battleground state with a history of razor-thin elections, potentially ineligible voters casting ballots in the fiercely fought contest between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden could lay the groundwork for a legal challenge. Both candidates are assembling massive legal teams in what is expected to be a close race.

“I think many parties are looking for any possible way to challenge the voice of the voters if it doesn’t go their way. And that goes across the board,” Earley said. “I think it’s unfortunate that everyone is lining up these high-powered lawyers. … I don’t think it serves the voters very well.”

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