I Owe You? Repayment Confusion Muddies FL Voting Rights Restoration

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The effort in Florida to implement Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to individuals previously convicted of felonies, is creating confusion because would-be voters are required to pay old fines and fees – but the state and counties have no reliable record of what those are. Reuters has the story:

Clifford Tyson wants to help choose America’s next president. But the Florida resident fears his vote might return him to jail.

Tyson, 63, owes court-ordered fines and fees for three felony convictions, one for robbery, two for theft, all decades old. Under a Florida law that went into effect July 1, he must pay those penalties before casting a ballot or risk being prosecuted for voter fraud.

Tyson searched court records, first on his own, then with the help of a nonprofit legal advocacy group. They say that because Florida has no comprehensive system for tracking such fines, the documents don’t make clear what he owes. The records, viewed by Reuters, show potential sums ranging from $846 to a couple thousand dollars related to crimes he committed in the late 1970s and 1990s. Tyson says he won’t risk voting until Florida authorities can tell him for sure.

“Until there is clarity, as much as I want to vote, I won’t do it,” Tyson said.

The confusion has led to a federal court challenge to the system enacted after voters approved Amendment 4 in 2018:

The Tampa pastor is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the payments law, which was crafted by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, also a Republican. The law came just months after Floridians approved a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to more than 1 million felons who have completed their sentences; that change to the state’s Constitution created a potentially huge new crop of voters in a critical battleground state ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The lawsuit, filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, alleges the fees requirement defies the will of Florida voters and amounts to an illegal poll tax on newly enfranchised Florida felons, many of them minorities.

The problem is that no one seems to know how – or where – to look to determine what costs must be paid:

But another argument is shaping up to be central to the plaintiffs’ case: Florida has no consolidated system for determining what felons owe or certifying that they have paid up. It’s a situation that ex-offenders say makes it virtually impossible for them to prove they are eligible to vote.

Those claims are bolstered by state election officials who say they can’t calculate what felons owe, either, according to a Reuters review of 7 depositions, emails and other internal correspondence from voting administrators submitted by plaintiffs’ attorneys as part of the lawsuit.

Florida has no centralized database where records of court-ordered fines and fees – and any payments of those penalties – are stored, election and court officials say. To get that information, felons typically must search documents in courts where they were convicted, be they federal or state, inside or outside Florida. Records have been found to be incomplete, contradictory or missing, plaintiffs’ attorneys say….

Plaintiffs’ attorneys say Florida has shifted all responsibility for compliance with the new payments law to ex-offenders, who risk prosecution if they get it wrong. The state contends the legislature merely implemented the constitutional amendment as it was written on the ballot.

Some county officials are corroborating the issue:

Some of the state’s 67 county elections supervisors – the public servants who ultimately decide which felons get culled from the rolls and which can stay – expressed concern in their depositions and to Reuters about making mistakes that could invite challenges to future election results.

Five testified recently in the lawsuit that they lack the manpower to do detailed searches or have no way of ascertaining for certain whether ex-offenders have met their financial obligations under SB 7066.

They said they are relying on Florida’s Department of State, which manages the state’s elections, to help them determine who is ineligible. That agency is developing a procedure to send counties regularly updated lists of felons on their rolls who have unpaid fines and fees, but it has no timetable as to when it will be ready, said Maria Matthews, the director of the Department of State’s Division of Elections, in a September deposition. Matthews did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Supporters of the new law say that the responsibility properly falls on those seeking to restore their voting rights:

Some backers of the payments law say the responsibility should be on ex-offenders, not the state, to figure out how to comply with SB 7066.

“If you’re going to register to vote and you’re a former felon, it’s worth double checking to make sure you took care of everything,” said J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party in central Florida.

A federal judge in the Northern District of Florida has set a Monday hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to throw out the fees requirement. A decision could come as early as this month…

State Representative Jamie Grant of Tampa, a Republican supporter of SB 7066, said critics of the law are the ones trying to defy the will of the electorate.

“You don’t get to change what the definition and terms are after people vote for it,” Grant said.

Without a centralized list of fines and fees, individuals can get conflicting information about what they owe:

The state is still discussing ways to centralize data to track payments. Building a consolidated system could take years and cost millions, according to lawmakers and officials who debated the issue before the law’s passage.

“Right now, the system is just a mess,” ACLU attorney Julie Ebenstein said.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center said the group spent weeks trying to track down what Tyson owes, but couldn’t get a clear answer.

For example, Tyson has a 1998 theft conviction in Hillsborough County on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A judgment order on the clerk’s online docket shows he was ordered to pay $661 in costs, fines and fees. But a separate subpage on the website indicates he was ordered to pay $1,066. Still another shows a total of $573. Tyson’s lawyers say no officials have been able to explain the discrepancies.

Needless to say, this confusion is a major issue in a key state for 2020 and beyond. One thing of which you may be certain is that this controversy will continue, and will very likely be a point of contention in the Sunshine State right up until Election Day 2020. Stay tuned …

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