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Florida’s Amendment 4 muddled by confusing voter forms

The Florida Department of State continues to use the wording it used before the amendment was passed — in violation of the law, advocacy groups say.
An unidentified voter makes her way into a polling place located at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center to vote in the Presidential Preference Primary Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Tampa. Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri in addition to Florida are all holding primaries on Tuesday. CHRIS URSO/STAFF [CHRIS URSO  |  Tampa Bay Times]
An unidentified voter makes her way into a polling place located at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center to vote in the Presidential Preference Primary Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in Tampa. Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri in addition to Florida are all holding primaries on Tuesday. CHRIS URSO/STAFF [CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 2

Despite the passage of Amendment 4 last year, which was intended to make it easier for felons to regain their voting rights, Florida officials are using the same instructions on the voter registration form that the state used before the amendment — and instructing felons that they “cannot register until your right to vote is restored.”

That language is not true for many felons. Since 65 percent of voters approved Amendment 4, Florida law allows felons who have completed their sentences to have their rights restored automatically.

For four months, advocacy groups have attempted to get the Florida Department of State to change the instructions for the online and paper forms, warning that confusion could violate voters’ rights. But the agency continues to use the wording it used before the amendment was passed — in violation of the law, the groups say.

“If you have been convicted of a felony, or if a court has found you to be mentally incapacitated as to your right to vote, you cannot register until your right to vote is restored,’’ reads the online and print form used to register voters across the state.

Below that wording is new language, inserted by the Florida Legislature in its implementation of Amendment 4, that asks felons if their rights have been restored “pursuant to s. 4 , Art. VI of the State Constitution.”

“Nobody understands what that legal gobbledygook means,’’ said Liza McClenaghan, state chair of Common Cause Florida, one of several groups that have asked state officials to update their forms to reflect the changes to state law. “It is confusing.”

Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Latino Justice and others have urged the Florida Department of State to convene an emergency hearing to adopt a new voter registration form that follows the intent of the constitutional amendment and puts voters’ rights in plain language.

McClenaghan points to the language in the top left corner of the registration form which spells out the conditions for voting and includes the same language about felons’ voting rights that the form included before the law change. Florida has an estimated 1.6 million potential voters declared ineligible because of past felonies — the most in the nation.voter registration form marked up

In July 18 and Sept. 26 letters to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, the groups said that because the voter registration form is confusing, “there is a serious risk that eligible Florida citizens — and in particular returning citizens — will be subject to heightened burdens that will prevent them from registering to vote in violation of their constitutional rights.”

Neither Lee nor the Department of State has responded directly to their complaints.

Sarah Revell, spokeswoman for the agency, told the Times/Herald: “The language you cite is carried over from the previous voter registration form and the form is currently in rulemaking.” The agency is accepting public comment, she said.

The Division of Elections held a workshop Aug. 6 to get public input on a new form, and Tuesday it convened the third meeting of the Restoration of Rights Working Group. But the agency has not started the formal process to change the form, even though state law requires that any changes to the voter registration form be adopted in a formal rulemaking process.

The groups also have raised issues with the Spanish language voter registration form. “Deficiencies in the amended versions of these forms are already having real-world impacts, causing confusion and creating additional barriers for returning citizens and Spanish-speaking citizens attempting to register to vote,’’ they wrote.

The voter advocacy groups say the Department of State has a pattern of violating this law. In 2014 and 2016, the agency held rule hearings to make updates to either the form or the manual that governs polling place procedures. But in both cases, it did not complete the process, so the form stayed the same and included none of the changes required by law.

One of the new laws that didn’t get included in the manual is a 2016 change that added three forms that could now be used to verify a voter’s identification: a concealed weapons permit, a government employee ID and a Veterans Administration health card.

Earlier this month, the Division of Elections did respond to an earlier complaint by the advocacy groups and fixed an inconsistency with the online form and paper form check-boxes related to felons. It made the change on a Sunday, shutting down its system, and drew complaints from Democrats that it was interfering with the kickoff of voter registration week. Two days later, on National Voter Registration Day, the site was working.

Republican lawmakers, in drafting legislation to implement the amendment, interpreted the language in the amendment in a way that opponents now say is a “poll tax” designed to keep felons from registering to vote.

The amendment says that felons will have their voting rights automatically restored when they complete “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” Legislators interpreted that to mean felons must pay all court fees, fines and restitution before they are eligible to vote.

Revell, spokeswoman for the agency, would not respond to questions about what the agency is doing to alleviate voter confusion. She said the agency is accepting all versions of the voter registration forms while it weaves through the rules process.

“The department updated the voter registration form to ensure compliance with Florida law,’’ she said. “However, both the previous and current voter registration form are being accepted and can be used to register to vote.”

McClenaghan said that despite the agency’s assurances, the division continues to do things that defy logic.

For example, on the online form listing addresses where voters can send their completed registration forms, “somebody changed all the mailing addresses for all supervisors of elections which used to be all pretty uniform.” Counties like Miami-Dade and Lee that rely on post office boxes to receive their voter registration forms have only the street addresses listed on the form, she said.

And in Jefferson County, the address supplied to voters is for the board of county commissioners, not the Jefferson County supervisor of elections.

“It’s like, hello?,’’ McClenaghan said. In their previous letters, the voting groups alerted the state to these discrepancies months ago, she said. “They still haven’t corrected it.”

McClenaghan said the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the League of Women Voters and other activists are training attorneys and supporters how to do voter registration despite the confusing applications. But she is worried the delay will have an impact on suppressing registration.

“If they had had even an emergency hearing, they would have 90 days to go through the regulatory process and they could have gotten comments on how to make this understandable,’’ she said.

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

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