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Florida, DeSantis sued after rollout of felon voting rights restoration

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition lawsuit says the state put roadblocks in the way of Amendment 4.
 
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, discusses the group's "fines and fees" program at a Tampa news conference on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, discusses the group's "fines and fees" program at a Tampa news conference on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published July 19, 2023|Updated July 20, 2023

Nearly five years after Floridians voted to allow people with felony convictions to restore their voting rights, the coalition that pushed for the change is suing the state, arguing Florida created a system that impedes the will of the voters.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition pushed Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment that allowed people with most felony convictions to regain their right to vote. Voters approved the measure in 2018, with about 65% in support.

The amendment’s passage was hailed as a major civil rights victory, set to undo the post-Civil War prohibition designed to remove Black people from the voter rolls. At the time the amendment passed, it was estimated nearly 1.4 million Floridians would be eligible for restoration.

But the coalition, in a sweeping federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, argues that “the State of Florida has failed to realize the promise of Amendment 4.” It said the issue is not simply “bureaucratic ineptitude” but a “years’ long campaign of acts and omissions ... that have thwarted the aspirations of the citizens of Florida who enacted Amendment 4, and the aspirations of those whose rights it restored.”

The year after Amendment 4 was passed, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill requiring all felons hoping to restore their voting rights to first pay back all fines and fees. But Florida has no centralized way for a person to determine how much they owe, leaving Floridians questioning if they’re eligible. County clerks offices often have outdated information on someone’s fees, and county clerks calculate fees differently, according to the lawsuit.

Restrictions on people with outstanding fines and fees has overwhelmingly affected Black Floridians.

The lawsuit points to a lack of a central statewide database where people can figure out if they’re eligible to have their voting rights restored. It also cites a backlog in advisory opinions from the Department of State and a lack of proper information provided to former felons by the Department of Corrections and the Commission on Offender Review.

Another problem arises from the recent arrests of felons who mistakenly voted, the lawsuit contends. The state issued voter ID cards to some of those individuals, who believed they were eligible but were still arrested. Their arrests were touted by DeSantis during a news conference where he was surrounded by law enforcement.

The lawsuit names DeSantis as a defendant, along with Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd, state corrections secretary Ricky Dixon, all supervisors of election and all county clerks and others.

Representatives for DeSantis, Byrd and Dixon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Along with the coalition, four individuals are also suing. They argue that they fear voting because of the disorganized rollout of Amendment 4, incorrect information they have been given by county clerks and the arrests pursued by the election crime office created by DeSantis.

While the state says people with felony convictions can seek advisory opinions on whether they’re eligible to vote, the coalition contends the opinions are not delivered in a timely manner and are inconsistent. Since late April, the coalition submitted 1,121 requests for advisory opinions and has received 14 responses, according to the lawsuit.

On top of failing to provide information on eligibility, the state is sending a message that “voting, even in good faith, may result in arrest and prosecution,” the coalition argues.

In August, DeSantis announced the arrest of 20 people for voting with disqualifying felony records, appearing at a news conference where he was surrounded by uniformed officers. But body camera footage from the arresting officers showed that both the individuals arrested and some of the arresting officers were confused by the charges. Some of the individuals arrested had been given voter cards by the state, which prompted them to believe they were eligible.

“Above all, the Defendants have defeated the promise of Amendment 4, which was to bring about an historic end to a 150-year constitutional injustice in Florida,” the lawsuit reads.

The coalition is arguing the state has violated the Voting Rights Act provision on voter intimidation, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the First Amendment.

It is asking that Florida be required to establish a statewide database showing how many outstanding fines and fees a person has, and in what jurisdiction. The state also should issue declarations to each individual with a felony conviction that affirms they are qualified, and it should appoint a monitor to oversee improvements in system, the lawsuit says.

Alabama, which also does not allow people with felonies to vote until they pay fines and fees, has a central data repository where they advise anyone within 44 days on their voter eligibility, the lawsuit notes.

“The state needs to own up to its responsibility,” said Desmond Meade, the executive director of the coalition, in a news conference Wednesday.

Meade said the arrests of well-intentioned former felons, who had been given voter cards by the state, spurred his organization to look at litigation. He also criticized a new state law that tells voters they are responsible for determining their eligibility, not the state.