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In Florida, the Right to Vote Can Cost You

Despite a state constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most people with past convictions, Florida has done all it can to keep them from the polls.

September 7, 2022

Fifty-five-year-old Kelvin Bolton was arrested at a homeless shelter earlier this year in Gainesville, Florida. He was held on a $30,000 bond and charged with three counts of third-degree perjury and fraud. His alleged crime? Voting with unpaid fines or court fees. 

Bolton is 1 of 10 people previously detained in a county jail who a local prosecutor is pursuing for allegedly registering or voting while ineligible. At the time, he had no idea his actions were anything but legal. Now, he and other formerly incarcerated people could land back behind bars for mistakenly believing they were eligible to vote because of a 2018 ballot initiative that restored voting rights to most Floridians with past convictions.

Bolton, who had been convicted for several nonviolent offenses, was registered to vote by the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office while in jail. He later cast an absentee ballot in the 2020 presidential election. According to Bolton, officials told him he had regained his voting rights, and he was unaware that court debts he owed from unrelated past convictions would render him ineligible. Had he known it was a crime, he said he never would have voted.

But prosecuting people with past convictions for illegally voting ignores the legal complexities of the state’s own making. In 2018, Floridians approved the Voting Restoration Amendment, known as Amendment 4, which aimed to restore voting rights to most state residents with past felony convictions who have completed their sentences. Amendment 4 put an end to Florida’s categorical policy of lifetime disenfranchisement for felony conviction, a policy with clear racist origins that was estimated to disenfranchise 1 in 4 Black men in the state. Supporters celebrated the amendment, which was estimated to expand the franchise to roughly 1.4 million Floridians. However, not even a year later, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature passed Senate Bill 7066, which bars people from regaining their voting rights if they have outstanding court debts related to a felony conviction — as was the case with Kelvin Bolton.

Any law that requires people to pay to vote is fundamentally antidemocratic. But to make matters worse, Florida makes it virtually impossible for people with past convictions to determine with certainty what they might owe. The state lacks a centralized database for tracking court debt and payments, so there is no easy way to verify court debts within the state’s 67 counties or access data on federal or out-of-state financial obligations. As such, many formerly incarcerated people don’t know they have outstanding debts at all, nor are they aware these debts would render them ineligible to vote. And without a proper record-keeping system, state and local officials struggle to help individuals verify this information. 

Moreover, those who do know the exact sum of their debts are sometimes no better off. Political scientist Daniel Smith estimated in 2020 that 79 percent of Floridians with past convictions who have completed their sentences owed at least $500 in fines and fees. The challenge of paying off these sizable debts can be insurmountable, especially when considering that involvement in the criminal legal system tends to mean lower income.

On top of the challenge of verifying and meeting the financial prerequisites, Floridians are also being failed by the department of state — an office tasked with reviewing new registrations and flagging ineligible voters for removal from the rolls. Rather than helping to alleviate confusion and spare unwitting people with past convictions from prosecution, the department of state has allowed disqualified voters to register and vote without notifying local election officials about the mistakes in a timely fashion. By the state’s own count, as of 2020, there were more than 85,000 registered voters with past felony convictions whose eligibility had to be screened, which officials estimated would take until 2026 to finish reviewing. Thus, individuals are left to pay the price of the administrative backlog. 

This isn’t the only way in which the state shares the blame for the recent prosecutions. In August, 20 Floridians were arrested for registering and voting in the 2020 election despite having past murder or sexual offense convictions, which were excluded from Amendment 4. Like Bolton, several of those who illegally registered to vote were encouraged to do so by local and state officials. According to the defendants, officials incorrectly informed them that Amendment 4 made them eligible to vote. Some of them also mistakenly assumed their registration was legal after receiving a voter registration card in the mail — something Florida sends to all voters regardless of whether they’re later found ineligible. Instead of acknowledging the state’s role in the problem, Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted the arrests as proof of the effectiveness of his new Office of Election Crimes and Security, an entity formed in July to crack down on unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud.

Taken together, the labyrinthine nature of Florida’s pay-to-vote system, the department of state’s inaction, and the dozens of high-visibility arrests seek to discourage people with past convictions from participating in our democracy. Notably, those found guilty of voting while ineligible could face up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. When the chances of misinterpreting the law are so high and the penalties are so severe, it’s little wonder that potentially eligible voters may be reluctant to test their luck.

Rather than deliver on the promise of Amendment 4, Florida has done everything in its power to keep people with past convictions from the polls. Instead of offering guidance and support for those trying to navigate the complex rules for regaining the franchise, the state has doggedly gone after them in the name of stamping out unproven voter fraud. For as long as the state capitalizes on the public’s confusion and fear of prosecution, people with past convictions will continue struggling to freely exercise their right to vote.