Here’s why Florida’s sham felon voting process needs fixing | Editorial
Doesn’t a constitutionally-enshrined right mean anything?
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which is suing Florida over the state's felon voting law, is shown here outside the Miami-Dade criminal courthouse in October 2020.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which is suing Florida over the state's felon voting law, is shown here outside the Miami-Dade criminal courthouse in October 2020. [ JOSE A IGLESIAS | El Nuevo Herald ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published July 27

Florida’s been busy in the five years since restoring voting rights for felons. It created new hurdles for felons casting a ballot, mobilized a special elections police force, further empowered prosecutors and made high-profile (if shaky) arrests. One thing it hasn’t done is create a centralized database to determine if a felon is actually entitled to vote. What was hailed a civil rights breakthrough in 2018 has become a shell of a state constitutional guarantee.

That’s why a new lawsuit, filed in federal court last week by the coalition behind Amendment 4, has so much promise to finally deliver. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition chronicled in detail the “yearslong campaign of acts and omissions ... that have thwarted the aspirations of the citizens of Florida.” It faulted Gov. Ron DeSantis, state and local elections officials, law enforcement agencies and others for creating and perpetuating “a bureaucratic morass” that prevents felons from voting “or even determining whether they are eligible to vote.”

Amendment 4 was intended to allow most people with felony convictions to regain their right to vote. More than 5 million Floridians, or about 65% of those who voted, supported the measure in 2018. Nearly 1.4 million Floridians were thought to be eligible. (The measure doesn’t apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.)

But the year after Amendment 4 passed, DeSantis signed into law a bill requiring felons to first pay all fines, fees and restitution ordered as part of their case. Yet even today, Florida has no centralized database for a person to check on what they owe, if anything. Court clerks across Florida’s 67 counties often have missing or outdated information on a person’s fees and court-ordered financial penalties. The Department of State, which oversees elections in Florida, is hopelessly backlogged in providing advisory opinions, while the Florida Department of Corrections and other agencies have routinely failed to assist felons in determining their eligibility.

“The result is a national embarrassment,” the lawsuit states, noting that Alabama — which has similar felon voting restrictions — has a centralized database that advises applicants within 44 days. “If Alabama can create a process to confirm the eligibility of its voters, Florida should be able to do so too.”

Amendment 4 is a constitutional guarantee the governor is legally required to implement and enforce. Yet the state’s refusal to do so after nearly five years, and the fear it has sowed among the very people it was supposed to help, has rendered the amendment moot for countless Floridians.

DeSantis could end this lawsuit by creating a clear, workable process for reliably informing felons of their eligibility. State and local elections offices already coordinate in policing the voter rolls, so the bureaucratic framework for sharing information is already there. The Legislature could help not only by funding a central data system, but by passing legislation that presumes felons are eligible to vote if their court records are missing or incomplete. The state should not be denying Floridians their rights simply because of the government’s own incompetence.

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Floridians passed Amendment 4 overwhelmingly, and they inherently expected their government to carry out the reform in good faith. The courts should not allow another election cycle to pass before ensuring that this right enshrined in the Florida Constitution is no longer denied to eligible voters.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.