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Ever since the Florida Legislature required felons to pay court fees after they’ve completed their sentences, the state has never provided an accessible system to determine their eligibility to vote — and the issue has rankled voting rights groups.
On Wednesday, Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd said his agency is aware of those problems, though he offered few specific details.
There’s been some consternation or concern about “people being able to get that information from the clerks of court, and I think that’s where we can improve the process,” Byrd said. “It is working with the judiciary. Working with the clerks to make the information easier and more accessible for individuals, because that’s where they’re running into issues.”
Those issues generally are fines, fees and restitution for felons, which could determine voter eligibility.
Byrd spoke about the issue Wednesday in a House committee related to elections. Lawmakers have been in the Capitol this week for committee hearings that lead up to the March 7 regular legislative session.
Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018, which allowed the automatic restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions who had completed their criminal sentence (except for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses).
However, during the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed legislation requiring those individuals to pay off all outstanding legal fines, fees and restitution they owed before they could get their voting rights restored.
Although advocates said that the passage of Amendment 4 would allow up to 1.5 million Floridians to be newly eligible to vote, a report by University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith in 2020 determined that 77% of those individuals were not qualified to register or vote due to outstanding felony-related legal financial obligations.
On Wednesday, Byrd said nothing about creating some type of website where such individuals could search to see if they still owed fees. Instead, he said that all such individuals would have to do is “contact the Department of State, the Division of Elections or the General Counsel Office. Or send me an email and we’re going to make sure that it gets to the right person that’s going to investigate for them.”
He added that there would be no fee to make that inquiry.
The League of Women Voters of Florida say that implementing such a system is a top priority that they’d like the Legislature address in the upcoming session.
“I think the state has the obligation to create a system where it’s easy for potential voters to determine if they’re eligible to vote,” President Cecile Scoon told the Phoenix earlier this month. “That is not the present system.”
Former GOP state Sen. Jeff Brandes, of Pinellas County, sponsored the 2019 legislation related to Amendment 4. He said at a criminal justice summit in Tampa last fall that the reason that the state hadn’t implemented such a system was because of resistance by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“The state needs to dedicate the necessary resources to solve these types of problems,” he told the Florida Phoenix at the time. “They haven’t. They’re only processing 50 applications a day at this point. And so they have a huge backlog of applications of people who are just wanting to know whether they had their (voting) rights restored or not. Whether they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. The state has to produce a very simple and straight forward way for individuals to get there. It really should be led by the Secretary of State. But the Secretary of State really isn’t doing anything without the governor’s office thumbs up or thumbs down right now.”
At the elections committee meeting, Byrd also said none of the Florida residents who were originally arrested last August on charges of alleged voter fraud were people who had outstanding legal obligations. A press release from the FDLE at the time of those arrests said that they were “convicted murderers or were convicted for committing felony sexual offenses.”
After Miami-Dade County Democrat Ashley Gantt noted at the meeting that “several of those cases have been dismissed,” Byrd challenged that comment, saying that the cases that have been dismissed were done so on “procedural grounds.” Byrd is an attorney.
“So it’s an issue of jurisdiction,” he said. “So they weren’t dismissed on the merits.”
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