Neil Volz and Desmond Meade (right) of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Credit: Mitch Perry
Calling the current system “a national embarrassment,” the group that pushed for a 2018 constitutional amendment designed to restore voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Gov. Ron DeSantis and other election officials to “realize the promise of Amendment 4.”
More than 65% of Floridians approved Amendment 4 in 2018 but, as attorneys for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) assert in their 74-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida in Miami, “the defendants have created and perpetuated a bureaucratic morass that prevents people with felony convictions from voting, or even determining whether they are eligible to vote.”
The lawsuit asserts that the failure to fully enact what the amendment was designed to do is “not simply the result of administrative failures or bureaucratic ineptitude,” but “a years’ long campaign of acts and omissions by the defendants that have thwarted the aspirations of the citizens of Florida who enacted Amendment 4, and the aspirations of those whose rights it restored.”
Along with DeSantis, defendants listed in the lawsuit include Secretary of State Cord Byrd, Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass, the three members of the Florida Commission on Offender Review, the clerks of the courts in Florida, and all of the supervisors of elections in Florida.
Supporters of Amendment 4 touted that its passage could restore voting rights for more than 1.4 million Floridians who had served their criminal sentences (except for those found guilty of murder or sexual offenses). However, that pool of potential voters was dramatically reduced in the spring of 2019, when the Florida Legislature required people with felony convictions to have paid any “legal financial obligations” (LFOs) — fines, fees, and restitution — to the state before regaining their right to vote.
But the state has never published a central database allowing those with felony convictions to determine their eligibility. The FRRC alleges former felons have refrained from registering to vote or voting for fear of making a mistake and facing prosecution.
The lawsuit notes that in April, Byrd told legislators, “I would love to see a statewide database,” but notes that “the defendants have abdicated their responsibilities and failed to demonstrate such leadership or to make reasonable efforts to purse this obvious and attainable solution.”
The FRRC alleges that as a consequence, they have had to spend significant amount of time and money assisting people in navigating “an incomprehensible state labyrinth in what should be an unnecessary effort to help them restore their voting rights.”
The lawsuit tells the story of four plaintiffs who have endured confusing and contradictory information from the state, and it lists seven situations in which the FRRC, in reliance on information provided by the clerks of the court, “overpaid, or was unable to ascertain what sums to accurately pay, when trying to pay off members’ LFOs to restore their voting rights.”
The leaders of the FRRC, executive director Desmond Meade and deputy director Neil Volz, released a statement via Twitter on Wednesday announcing the lawsuit.
“Florida’s failure to accept responsibility in determining voter eligibility hurts every Florida citizen,” they said. “This is not a black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian, or multi-racial issue or a Republican or Democrat issue; this is an everybody issue. If Floridians cannot rely on the state to determine voter eligibility, then who can we rely on?”
The lawsuit seeks an order for election officials to begin complying with the law within 60 days by creating a central database where people with felony convictions can check their status. The FFRC also is seeking for the federal court to appoint a monitor to oversee the state’s compliance. They want the court to order the secretary of state and the county court clerks to provide an accounting of funds paid by and behalf of people with prior felony convictions.
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