Photo via Ron DeSantis/Twitter
Florida elections officials are moving ahead to comply with a federal judge’s order that could pave the way for hundreds of thousands of felons to register and vote without paying court-ordered fines and restitution, even as Gov. Ron DeSantis initiated an appeal of the ruling on Friday.
Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews sent a memo Wednesday advising county supervisors of elections about U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle’s decision overturning major parts of a 2019 law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” – fines, fees, costs and restitution associated with their convictions – to be eligible to vote.
Matthews’ email to the county elections officials included a summary of Hinkle’s decision and told them “to review the order in its entirety.”
The disputed 2019 law was aimed at implementing a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentences, including parole and probation,” excluding murderers and people convicted of sexual felonies.
Hinkle had already ruled in October that it is unconstitutional for the state to bar felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” their court-ordered debts from voting. He also told the state to develop a process to determine whether felons had outstanding financial obligations and were unable to pay the costs.
But after the state failed to come up with a procedure, Hinkle issued a rare weekend order Sunday laying out specific guidelines for elections officials to follow to ensure that Floridians who have served their time behind bars but can’t afford to pay the obligations are able to cast ballots.
Hinkle, in part, created a form for felons who are unsure if they have court-ordered debts or who cannot afford to pay to seek an “advisory opinion” from state elections officials.
Hinkle’s ruling also banned the state from using a voter-registration form that was part of the 2019 law, finding that the form violated the National Voting Registration Act. The form included three checkboxes addressing felony convictions.
“Please remove any links to this form from your website and link solely” to an earlier version of the form, Matthews wrote in Wednesday’s email to the elections supervisors. The older form includes a checkbox that says, “I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored.”
As of Friday, the state Division of Elections website still included links to the form the judge decided is unconstitutional.
Matthews’ message to the supervisors also said the Division of Elections and county elections officials must make available online and in hard copy a “statement of rules governing eligibility to vote after a felony conviction” crafted by Hinkle and part of his order.
“We are currently reviewing internally and finalizing the requisite advisory opinion request form to be made available to you and online as soon as possible. Spanish translated documents will also be provided,” Matthews, a lawyer, wrote. “We are also reviewing our options, and further guidance as to this order will be forthcoming as needed and if anything changes.”
Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards told The News Service of Florida she is complying with Hinkle’s order, but his forms need to be tweaked.
The request for an advisory opinion includes lines for people to identify their street addresses and email addresses but does not include a line for the requesters’ names, Edwards said.
And the standards for voting eligibility do not have the Division of Election’s website, which by Friday included information about felons’ rights to advisory opinions and a link to the form.
Edwards said she highlighted the glitches to Matthews’ office.
“If they don’t fix it, I’ll fix it,” Edwards said Friday.
People who fit the criteria laid out by Hinkle do not have to seek advisory opinions to register to vote, Edwards said.
“Nobody has to ask for an advisory opinion. It’s there to alleviate concerns of people who feel they may be in the gray area and don’t know what to do,” she said.
Many people who have spent time in prison are “trying to be so careful,” Edwards said.
“They don’t want to make a mistake,” she added.
The process devised by the judge means the vast majority of more than 770,000 Florida felons who have outstanding financial obligations will be eligible to vote without taking any action.
Under the order, felons who were eligible for court-appointed attorneys at the time they were last convicted of felonies are considered unable to pay the financial obligations and can register and vote. Felons whose court-ordered financial judgments were converted to civil liens, a process that frequently occurs prior to incarceration, also are deemed unable to pay, making them eligible to register and vote. And felons who submit financial affidavits that would be sufficient to establish indigent status by a court are also considered unable to pay, and thus eligible to cast ballots.
DeSantis and his administration have fiercely defended the 2019 law, and on Friday filed a notice saying the state intends to appeal Hinkle's decision.
The governor on Tuesday said the federal judge's ruling was expected.
“That was obvious from the beginning. It'll go to 11th Circuit and we'll see how it shakes out there,” DeSantis, referring to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, told reporters.
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