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Florida’s elections overhaul delayed, supervisors say

Delays in implementing key changes are facing insurmountable hurdles before the Nov. 3 general election.

HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS — Hopes for full implementation of two of the most significant changes to the way Florida registers voters, from enlisting eligible felons to registering newcomers moving to Florida, were all but dashed at this week’s annual meeting of the state’s 67 supervisors of elections.

Delays in implementing key changes are facing insurmountable hurdles before the Nov. 3 general election, several elections officials said at the winter meeting of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

Full implementation of Amendment 4 has been snagged in a legal quagmire over whether felons were required to pay back all court fees, fines and restitution before being allowed to register to vote. The second delay is with the much-vaunted entry into the Electronic Registration Information Center, a bipartisan cooperative working to improve the accuracy of America’s voter rolls.

Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews said the electronic registration information system is expected to identify as many as 4.5 million voters in Florida who are eligible but not registered. Elections officials will provide outreach to them, it is unlikely that other features of the program — such as finding about 1 million eligible residents who moved to Florida but are not registered and others those who move within the state — will get done before Election Day.

“It could still happen,’’ she said, but because of a federal deadline that gives the state a narrow window to remove anyone from the voting lists, if voters don’t come forward themselves, the state is not likely to alert another state or counties within the state that newcomers should be removed. “You don’t want to confuse voters,’’ she said.

Matthews reminded elections officials that it is the state’s responsibility to screen out felons excluded from registering to vote and segregate from eligible voting rolls those who committed murder or felony sexual offenses under the voter-approved Amendment 4.

But she said the new state law requires that elections officials review “financial obligation documents” for all others with a felony record to determine if the person hasn’t satisfied their sentence by paying all fees, fines and restitution.

Legal action is pending

Ashley Davis, deputy counsel for the Department of State, gave elections supervisors an update on four lawsuits pending against the state. She said that while the Legislature attempted to clarify implementation of Amendment 4, a federal court ruling has thrown its use for elections officials into question.

Carr said they are waiting eagerly for a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court, after Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the court to determine what “inability to pay” financial obligation means, she said.

“We are in a waiting period,’’ Davis said. The Florida Supreme Court “will decide what ‘all terms of sentence’ means. Does it mean all outstanding financial obligations?”

DeSantis’ request to the state court has been derided by ACLU of Florida’s legal director, Daniel Tilley, as a “publicity stunt” meant to reaffirm the governor’s opposition to Amendment 4.

Two key Republican lawmakers have said they will file legislation to address some of the problems with Amendment 4 that were criticized by the federal judge. But several supervisors raised doubts about whether a Florida Supreme Court ruling or legislation will resolve the issue in time to apply new rules when registering eligible felons for either the March 17 presidential primary, the Aug. 18 primary election, or the Nov. 3 general election.

“The pieces aren’t in place to accommodate anything before 2020,’’ said Lori Edwards, Polk County Supervisor of Elections during the break in the meeting. She said that if voters register and attest that they have completed their sentence, “I take them at their word.”

Felons who register

What happens if rules are implemented that remove felons who have already registered?

Mark Earley, Leon County Supervisor of Elections, says that a former felon who asserts he does not have the the inability to pay, can register now absent any clearly defined rules, but if new rules come into play, there is no process now for removing them from the rolls. “They can vote unless there is a removal process,’’ he said. “No one is initiating a removal process for these sentencing folks.”

Matthews, the state’s Division of Elections director, concluded: If there is any discrepancy “we are to err on the side of the voter.”

Matthews said the state has moved more slowly in completing its entry into the ERIC system after DeSantis announced in August that the state’s voter registration data will be cross-checked against information from 30 other states for the first time starting next year.

The state officially joined the program on Wednesday, making it one of the largest states to join the program and is “a huge step forward for more inclusive and accurate elections not just in Florida, but nationwide,’’ said David Becker, the founder and director of the program.

Florida can share information from other states’ voter registration systems, motor vehicle databases, social security death records, and U.S. Post Office records. It will allow Florida to identify duplicate registrations, and outdated records from voters who have moved or died, and determine which newcomers to the state are eligible to vote but have not yet registered.

“More voters will be able to vote, and there will be far fewer problems at the polls,” Becker said.

Becker told supervisors Tuesday that because of the short window the state has to update its voter rolls, it may not be able to take advantage of pieces of the full program this year.

As a member of ERIC, the state must agree that after receiving its “eligible but unregistered report” elections officials will notify voters and invite them to register to vote, using the state’s online voter registration system.

Four other reports will be used by the state to maintain its voter database and, once received, the state has 90 days to notify voters and update its voter registration lists. Those lists may be difficult to use this year because it could lead to people being removed from the voter rolls in Florida or other states, Becker said.

Voter rolls

For example, Becker said, the “in-state movers” report is expected to show an estimated that 717,000 Floridians will move within the state, requiring updates to their voter information.

The “cross-state movers” report is estimated to show another 233,000 people are estimated to move into or out of Florida, requiring that they be removed from either Florida’s or another state’s voter rolls.

Another report would show about 24,000 are estimated to be removed based on the Social Security Administration’s master list of deceased. And a report on “in-state duplicates” is expected to show an estimated 17,000 people are registered to vote in multiple places and also could be removed.

But because federal law imposes blackout dates, the state is prohibited from removing anyone from the voter rolls 90 days prior to the date of primary or general election for federal office. That leaves only the time between March 17 and May 20 to update the voter list based on the information received from the electronic registration system, Becker said.

“I’m not advising any state to do it with a window this short,’’ said Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

He also warned that “it’s very easy to politicize voter list maintenance.” For example if a Democratic-leaning county doesn’t update its list while a Republican-leaning county does. “Why take on that politicization when you don’t need to?”

He also said state officials need to give the public at least 30 days, and ideally more time, to cure a mistake. Other states in similar situations, such as Georgia, have decided the window for list maintenance “is not sufficient do it right” so they are waiting until 2021 to update the voter files based on the information obtained from the electronic system.

“ I think that is a pretty wise decision,’’ he said.

Christine White, supervisor of elections for Miami-Dade County, said she agreed that when implementing any new elections procedure, “it needs to be done in a very methodical way.” But she expressed hope that the debate over felons registration is resolved quickly.

“Everyone understands the urgency,’’ she said.

Alan Hays, a former state legislator and now supervisor of elections for Lake County, said he agrees that it is better to move cautiously and get implementation of the new voter registration efforts right.

“Since Jan. 8, not one supervisor has refused to register one of those people,’’ he said of the eligible felons. “There hasn’t been a spike in registrations.”

As for the delay, “we’ve done fine without it,’’ he said. Hays said he was an enthusiastic support of Florida’s joining the multi-state data sharing group, but “we want to make sure we do it correctly.

“I don’t think we should update our lists until after the 2020 election because we don’t want anybody to think they are going to be denied the right to vote.”

Becker commended Florida for joining the multi-state organization. As one of the top three states for mobility to and from other states, the state’s inclusion will improve the quality of data and reduce the cost for all.

“Not all voter list maintenance is a purge” he added. “When you get it right, it’s really good. It’s enfranchising. When you get it wrong, it’s really bad.”

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