TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With an eye on averting a “nightmare scenario” on Election Day, state House members Thursday began delving into what many state officials are calling ambiguities in a constitutional amendment that restores the right to vote for most felons who have completed their sentences.
The amendment, approved by 64 percent of Florida voters in November, exempts murderers and people who have committed “felony sex offenses” from automatic voting-rights restoration.
“Returning citizens,” as felons are called by backers of the amendment, began registering to vote throughout the state when the measure took effect last month.
But, because the amendment doesn’t define what exactly constitutes “murder” or which specific sex crimes make someone ineligible for voting-rights restoration, state and local elections officials, clerks of court and prosecutors are relying on the Legislature to give them guidance in interpreting the new law.
Officials are also seeking clarification about how to determine whether felons have completed the terms of their sentences.
Some proponents believe the amendment does not require full payment of restitution, because such a requirement is not specifically mentioned in the amendment. Other officials maintain restitution and issues such as mandatory drug testing or school attendance should be considered components of sentences if they are included in judges’ sentencing orders.
House Judiciary Chairman Paul Renner said lawmakers’ first job is to identify the sources of confusion before they can begin to craft solutions to address what could become a contentious issue during the legislative session that begins March 5.
“The job of the committee is to remove subjectivity and to create objectivity, so nobody has to guess. There’s no doubts, there are no speed bumps, and nobody’s personal opinion is trumping the will of the voters as expressed in the constitutional amendment. That is where we are aiming,” Renner, R-Palm Coast, said during a joint meeting Thursday of his committee and the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.
But even if uncertainty surrounding the definitions is cleared up, elections officials could face a Herculean task trying to verify whether people who’ve registered to vote have met all the conditions required to make them eligible to cast ballots.
That’s because no single database shows whether felons have completed all terms of their sentences, and forms don’t exist to show whether felons have met all the conditions imposed by judges.
Clerks of court have billions of records detailing court fees, fines and costs, but many of those documents exist only on paper or are archived on microfilm or microfiche, Martin County Clerk of Courts Carolyn Timmann told lawmakers.
“It’s those old records that become the challenge,” Timmann said on behalf of the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers association.
And clerks have no way of verifying whether people have paid restitution if they have been released from state supervision, such as parole, without paying off their debt, she said.
Judges don’t always have that information, either, according to Frederick Lauten, chief judge of the 9th Judicial Circuit.
“There needs to be some central repository of information,” Lauten said. “Right now, it’s sort of scattered.”
Renner acknowledged that accessing the records is an issue.
“That information is in a lot of different places, and we need to bring it together. Once we do that, this process will be much simpler,” he said.
House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, raised the specter of a “nightmare scenario” in which a losing candidate in a close election could submit a series of public-records requests to determine whether felons who voted had fulfilled the terms of their sentences. A panel Thursday representing prosecutors, elections officials, the court system and clerks seemed doubtful that such records now are available.
“It’s going to be incredibly exhaustive to be able to do that,” said Jack Campbell, the state attorney in the 2nd Judicial Circuit, which includes Tallahassee and surrounding areas.
According to one state analysis of the amendment, the constitutional change could open the door to voting for more than 730,000 felons in Florida.
“We are witnessing the largest expansion of democracy in 50 years. This sits on the Emancipation Proclamation, this sits with the women’s suffrage movement. This is sacred, sacred stuff that we are talking about,” Neil Volz, the political director of a committee that backed the amendment, told lawmakers Thursday.
Rep. James Bush III, D-Miami, expressed concern that felons who believe they are eligible but who are disqualified might be committing a crime if they register to vote.
But Campbell assured lawmakers that those voters won’t get in trouble, at least while the Legislature grapples with the issue.
“Every state attorney elected, we have no stomach or interest in trying to prosecute these cases until you all settle the issue,” he said.