TALLAHASSEE — State elections officials told county supervisors this week that they will start the process to remove felons who owe court fees or fines from the state’s voter roll.
But this purge won’t happen before Election Day. It’s too late for that under the state’s election code.
The notice this week, less than three weeks before Election Day, still came as surprise for some county elections supervisors and civil rights group.
“Are we going to get these next week? Am I getting a hundred or a thousand?” Brian Corley, the Republican supervisor of elections for Pasco County, told Politico. “It’s a little disappointing, as you might imagine.”
Orlando Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, a Democrat, said Corley was “right to be concerned” with the late notice.
But he and other elections supervisors said the notification from the state was a non-issue heading into Nov. 3.
“No voters will be removed from the rolls based on new information from (Florida officials) this week,” Cowles said in a text message. “No action will be taken on any voter for at least 30 days — meaning no action can occur until well after November 3.”
A spokesman for Secretary of State Laurel Lee, who oversees the Division of Elections, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the notice Friday. Last week, Lee told the Times/Herald and ProPublica that she was going to go forward with removing ineligible felons from the rolls, but because of the timing, she didn’t expect any of them to be removed before Election Day.
The timing is a consequence of an 18-month legal battle between Gov. Ron DeSantis and civil rights groups over a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018. Known as Amendment 4, it restored the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms” of their sentence.
Last year, Republican lawmakers and DeSantis passed a law clarifying that “all terms” included all court fees, fines and restitution handed down on a felon’s sentence. The clarification prohibited an estimated 80 percent of felons who still owed those fees from registering to vote. Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, sued, accusing DeSantis of creating an unconstitutional “poll tax.” Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the law.
While the court case was playing out, at least 31,400 felons registered to vote, according to a Times/Herald and ProPublica analysis. Thousands of them are likely ineligible now because they owe court debts.
Lee said she waited for the litigation to play out before removing felons who owe court debts from the rolls. The Division of Elections screens ineligible voters and notifies county elections supervisors, who use the information to remove voters from the rolls.
A week after the 11th Circuit decision, the Division of Elections notified county elections supervisors that Lee was going to proceed with removing them. On Tuesday, the division sent out a second notice to elections supervisors telling them to expect to receive “files” on ineligible felons. The office sent an example of what an ineligible felon’s file would look like, including information on outstanding court fees and fines.
The Division of Elections also reminded supervisors, who are mostly elected and don’t report to the state, that they had to adhere to Florida election law on removing an ineligible voter from the roll.
Under state law, once a county elections supervisor gets a notification a voter might be ineligible, they have seven days to notify that voter that they’ve started the process to remove them. The voter then has 30 days to respond to that notice — a deadline that Lee and elections supervisors all acknowledged was well past Election Day.
“It seems almost inconceivable that a single voter will be moved to ‘ineligible’ as a result of this before the election,” said Steve Vancore, a spokesman for Broward County Supervisor of Elections Peter Antonacci, who was appointed to the post by former Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.
Yet the lack of clarity from the Secretary of State’s office had the ACLU, Brennan Center for Justice and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrongly accusing the state of acting “in direct violation of the state’s 30-day notice period." They later corrected it to say that if the state “were” to remove people before the election, it would violate the notice period.
Announcing the upcoming purge so close to the election is questionable, said Sean Morales-Doyle deputy director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center, a liberal-leaning policy institute at New York University Law School.
“Everything the state has done has caused confusion, and often seems aimed at accomplishing that goal,” Morales-Doyle said.
So far, it doesn’t appear the state has sent information on any felons who are ineligible for owing fines and fees to county elections supervisors. Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections spokesman Dustin Chase said the office wasn’t expecting any notifications about ineligible felons before Nov. 3.
“Our contacts have told us there wouldn’t be any of those sent out before Election Day,” Chase said.
But because the state is unlikely to remove ineligible voters, Times/Herald and ProPublica found it creates another problem: Thousands of ineligible voters could cast ballots next month without knowing they’re ineligible.
Multiple political and legal experts told the Times/Herald and ProPublica last month that the situation could prompt someone to challenge the state’s election results.
“If there is a wide swath of felons on the rolls who are ineligible to vote,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said last month, “that is likely to be something that is challenged.”
Tampa Bay Times elections coverage
VOTER GUIDE IS COMING SOON: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18, with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.
HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.
FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.
POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?
SIGN UP FOR ELECTION TEXT MESSAGES: Get voting information, news updates and ask political editor Steve Contorno questions about the candidates and issues, directly through your phone.
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.