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Analysis

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.

July 11, 2019

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)