County elections workers are “butting our heads against the wall” trying to figure out if convicted felons are eligible to vote under a Florida law that is the subject of a nationally watched trial this week, a Central Florida supervisor of elections told a federal judge on Wednesday.
The law, passed by Republican legislators last year, requires felons who’ve served their time behind bars to pay court-ordered “legal financial obligations” —- fees, fines, costs and restitution —- to be eligible to vote.
The statute was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment designed to restore voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentences.
But voting-rights groups filed a lawsuit contending that linking finances with voting rights amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.” Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, meanwhile, insists that the state law properly carries out the language of the constitutional amendment.
Since the trial began Monday, plaintiffs’ witnesses have laid out a host of problems with the law.
The state lacks a single database where felons, lawyers or elections officials can determine whether people have outstanding court-ordered financial obligations.
County and state databases that do exist often have contradictory or incomplete records. Sentences imposed decades ago can be impossible to track down.
And, without direction from the state Division of Elections, county supervisors of elections are often powerless when felons who want to register to vote seek help.
Potential voters “need a credible, reliable source that they can get information from,” Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington told U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle during Wednesday’s testimony.
“It would be nice if we had a clearinghouse or something like that that could give us this information. But voters or potential voters are lost a lot of times as to where to even begin this process,” she added.
Under a process that has been in place for years, the state Division of Elections verifies that Floridians who register to vote are eligible to cast ballots by checking a variety of court databases. Voters who are not deemed eligible are flagged, and the information is sent to county supervisors of elections, who make final determinations about eligibility and have the authority to remove people from the voting rolls.
Days before the trial began, attorneys representing the DeSantis administration released a procedure for identifying felons who had outstanding financial obligations. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, who pressed the state for the updated procedure, maintain the process is inadequate.
Under the revised plan, state elections workers are supposed to credit all payments felons have made —- including fees to collections agencies or other third parties —- toward the total amount assessed at the time of sentencing. If the payments equal or surpass the amount assessed at sentencing, the voter is considered eligible, according to the new procedure.
But determining who was paid, how much they were paid, and when they were paid can be difficult or impossible to discern, according to Arrington.
Arrington said her office has reached out to collections agencies and court clerks to help people in her county determine whether they had outstanding financial obligations, such as restitution.
“The clerk of the court could not give us the definitive answer. Sometimes they gave us the name of the collection agency that had acquired the debt. When we contacted the collection agency, we got no information, either,” she said.
Arrington said she and her staff advised potential voters to contact the Department of Corrections, seek legal help or reach out to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, one of the groups that advocated for what appeared as Amendment 4 on the November 2018 ballot.
For now, Arrington’s office has given up trying to help people determine whether they have outstanding court-ordered fees, fines, costs or restitution.
“We're just butting our heads against the wall,” she said.
One man who sought Arrington’s assistance said he had been convicted of a felony 50 years ago. He could not remember whether any financial obligations were imposed at the time, or if he had paid them, she said. Arrington’s office reached out to the Osceola County clerk of court on the man’s behalf.
“They told us those records were in storage somewhere and they’d have to go hunt them and they weren't real excited about doing that,” she said. “So in the end, we told him that he had to determine if he had paid his fines and fees.”
Arrington said she did not know if the man ever registered to vote.
“He left that day and we haven’t seen him again,” Arrington said.
As is the case in most general-election years, elections supervisors have a “tremendous workload increase” exacerbated this spring by social-distancing precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the supervisor of elections said.
Arrington also said she would be unable to decide whether someone who wanted to register to vote had the ability to pay outstanding fees and fines.
“I would think you would have to have certain documents. I don’t know if I have a right to see those documents. There would be lots of questions,” she said.
Elections supervisors throughout Florida need “a lot of” guidance from Secretary of State Laurel Lee’s office about how to handle the impact of the state law and the constitutional amendment on voter registration.
“There are 67 of us. There’s a good chance we all would be doing it 67 ways,” Arrington, who was elected in 2008, said.
In a preliminary injunction issued in October, Hinkle ruled that state cannot deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable” to pay financial obligations associated with their convictions. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction, which applied only to the 17 named plaintiffs in the case. Hinkle this month granted class certification to plaintiffs, adding potentially hundreds of thousands of felons to the lawsuit.
Hinkle’s October ruling also ordered DeSantis’ administration to come up with a process in which felons could try to prove they are unable to pay financial obligations and should be able to vote.
The administration is fiercely defending the law, despite a series of decisions pointing toward a final decision by Hinkle in favor of the plaintiffs.
During Wednesday’s testimony, Douglas Bakke, the chief operating officer of the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court’s office, said it can take hours for his staff to research decades-old cases to determine whether financial obligations were imposed and if they were paid.
In the 1970s and 1980s, his office used a shoebox to store records of felons’ financial payments, Bakke said Wednesday.
More than 100,000 people have been convicted in Hillsborough County over the past decade, according to Bakke, who said his office would be swamped if tens of thousands of people asked for information about their court-ordered financial obligations.
“It would be quite an overwhelming task,” he said.
Please follow CDC guidelines and Orange County advisories to stay safe, and please support this free publication. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Central Florida. Please consider making a one-time or monthly donation. Every little bit helps.