Elections official: state faces backlog of 85,000 former felons seeking the restoration of their voting rights

By: - May 4, 2020 7:00 pm
early voting booth

Voting booths.

With five months left before the voter registration deadline for the presidential race, the state director of the Division of Elections testified Monday that her office has a backlog of some 85,000 registrations from felons who may be able to vote under Amendment 4 but are awaiting determination of their eligibility.

But the state is unlikely to be able to review all those registrations under the current system, leaving thousands of voters in doubt about their ability to vote in the nation’s largest swing state, where presidential elections in recent years have been decided by narrow margins.

In a federal trial, Maria Matthews, who has led the division that oversees Florida’s elections for the last seven years, said her agency only has 20 workers assigned to review “felon matches” for the new registrations.

Typically, Matthews said the division can review 57 felon registrations per day. Under that estimate, it would take 1,491 days to get through the 85,000 pending registrations — which would be more than four years, assuming the review also occurred on weekends and holidays, which is not typical.

Additionally, the review of the felon registrations could take even longer under Amendment 4, a 2018 state constitutional measure that restored voting rights to felons once they had completed their sentences. Under a 2019 law, the review must also determine whether the felons have paid all their fines, court costs, restitution and other fees that were part of their sentences.

Matthews said her division has reached an agreement with the Florida Commission on Offender Review, the agency that handles clemency cases, to assist in the review of the felon registrations, which may help reduce the backlog.

But Matthews also testified that the Division of Elections was still working on the procedures it would use to review the felon registrations for compliance under the new law. Felons who were convicted of murder or sex offenses are not eligible to vote under either the amendment or the law.

The 2019 law is at the center of the trial in federal court. Civil rights groups are challenging the measure as an unconstitutional “wealth test,” since it requires the former felons who have served their prison time or probation to also pay all their court-related fees.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee are defending the measure.

With the legal challenge already raising issues about requiring low-income former inmates to pay all their court costs and fines before they can vote, Matthews also testified that the state is working on a way for some felons to declare they “genuinely” cannot pay those costs.

She said if the felons can attest to their indigency, it would be a factor in deciding whether they are eligible to vote.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who is presiding over the case, sharply questioned Matthews over the state filing a plan, describing how the court fee payments would be reviewed by the state, roughly a week before the trial began on April 27.

Throughout the six-day trial, Hinkle has talked about the late emergence of the “first-dollar principle,” where the state said any payments made by a felon would be counted against the original costs, fines and fees at the time of sentencing, for the purpose of restoring voting rights.

It is meant to address the problem, which has been outlined in arguments before the court, where the felons face a host of other fees, following their sentences, such as paying interest on outstanding debt or having to pay fees to a collection agency.

Under the state’s April 17 policy, an inmate who paid $100 to a collection agency as payment on $500 in court costs would get credit for the full $100, even though as much as $40 of that payment could go toward a collection agency fee.

Matthews said in cases where the state could not determine how much the former felons owed or how much they had paid, the division would give the benefit of doubt to the felon and would not try to invalidate the registration. But she said ultimately in any case forwarded to the local supervisors of elections with a registration challenge, it will be up to the local supervisor to make the final decision.

Florida voters seeking to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election will have to register by Oct. 5. Voters seeking to participate in the Aug. 18 primary elections face a July 20 registration deadline.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.