Florida Law Throws Voter Rights Restoration into Chaos
The new law makes it impossible for returning citizens to know whether they are eligible to vote.
Last November, Floridians passed a constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that automatically restored voting rights to most citizens with felony convictions in their past (“returning citizens”) who completed the terms of their sentence including probation and parole. But this past June, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066, which requires returning citizens to pay off all legal financial obligations (“LFOs”), including court fines, fees, and restitution, assessed by a court at the time of their sentence before they are eligible to vote. In a state where 83 percent of legal financial obligations are expected to go uncollected because of inability to pay, S.B. 7066 amounts to permanent disenfranchisement for many — if not most — returning citizens in Florida.
S.B. 7066 not only undermines the historic enfranchising effect of Amendment 4 by making the ability to pay LFOs a precondition to voting. It ignores the fact that the state’s byzantine record-keeping system makes it practically impossible for returning citizens and elections administrators to know who is eligible to vote. Many returning citizens who want to know whether they have outstanding LFOs may not even know where to start. There is no statewide database that accurately and completely tracks fines, fees, costs, or restitution. To the extent data is available, it’s scattered among state agencies, Florida’s 67 county Clerks of Court, 49 other states, and potentially every federal court in the country.
When a returning citizen requests a report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) website, it is often unclear whether a charge resulted in a conviction and whether that conviction was for a felony offense. More importantly, FDLE reports often mistakenly state that there are no fines, costs, or restitution ordered in relation to a conviction.
Returning citizens might also be referred to the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC), where they could be directed to speak with someone in the Offender Based Information System technical unit to obtain information about what is owed. But the DOC might tell returning citizens that their convictions occurred too long ago for the DOC to maintain any records, or that partial records exist for restitution payments, but not for court costs, fines, or fees.
Some returning citizens may request records of LFOs related to their convictions from the County Clerk of Court’s office in the specific county where they were convicted. Some counties make such records available online. But records available on Clerk of Court websites tend to show different balances for the same assessments, Clerks of Court typically do not keep track of restitution payments, and Clerk of Court records often contradict FDLE reports.
Even if a returning citizen made all of those inquiries, she is unlikely to have a clear understanding of what LFOs are outstanding, if any. And that assumes that returning citizens — who face tremendous challenges in obtaining employment, housing, and health care — have the time to make several hours’ worth of calls, know how to navigate this patchwork system, and are comfortable pressing for answers from the very agencies empowered to mete out criminal punishment.
The processes detailed here do not begin to address the difficulties faced by returning citizens who were convicted in out-of-state or federal courts: Florida does not track LFOs assessed by those courts at all.
Florida’s shoddy record-keeping is expected to wreak havoc on elections administration and voter list maintenance. County Supervisors of Elections will be relying on same incomplete and inaccurate data as they decide which returning citizens are eligible to register to vote and which registrations should be cancelled.
When they passed S.B. 7066, Florida legislators knew just how difficult it would be for individuals, state agencies, and county officials to determine whether returning citizens have outstanding LFOs. Rep. James Grant, House sponsor of the policy advanced by S.B. 7066, repeatedly acknowledged as much on the House floor, confirming that “[t]here is no stakeholder in the state of Florida that can serve as a source of truth that somebody completed all terms of their sentence.” The chief of Florida’s Department of Corrections testified that the department “has no way of knowing” what happens with outstanding financial obligations after a person is released from supervision, resulting in “enormous gaps” of information. Martin County Clerk of Court Carolyn Timmann testified that the clerk’s office often lacks data tracking restitution payments (or direct recompense to victims) for which there are typically no receipts or other documentation.
The chaos that S.B. 7066 creates is a feature, not a bug. That’s why the Brennan Center, along with co-counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed suit in federal court. The League of Women Voters of Florida, a Brennan Center client in the lawsuit, has found that the uncertainty about whether returning citizens have outstanding LFOs is already chilling voter registration. Returning citizens have good reason to hesitate: those who register or vote while mistakenly believing themselves eligible could risk prosecution for a felony offense.
(Image: Getty/Darren Hauck)