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Felons voting clarification comes too late for primary

File photo (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
File photo (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida secretary of state quietly published guidance for people with felony convictions to determine whether they are eligible to register to vote.

There was no news release. The felons voting rights guidance just appeared on the Division of Elections website.

It even caught Desmond Meade by surprise. He led the charge for a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”

“They didn’t give notice to any of the organizations that they know are working to help returning citizens to participate in our democracy,” said Meade, who serves as executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

Florida legislators last year approved a law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines, costs and restitution — associated with their convictions to be eligible to vote. Republican lawmakers said the requirement properly carried out the wording of the constitutional amendment. But backers of the amendment challenged the 2019 statute, saying that linking finances and voting rights amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

After many twists and turns in the legal battle over the Legislature’s interpretation of the amendment, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is poised to hear arguments Tuesday in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that found the law unconstitutional.

The new guidance on the Division of Elections website clarifies that as long as a felon has paid the total of what they originally owed, they can register to vote. Additional fees or interest added to their original debt can’t count against them.

Felons can also ask the secretary of state to determine whether they’re eligible. But Meade said, even with the new guidance, that process hasn’t been fleshed out.

“They’re not telling a person exactly what to do, and in addition, they’re not even giving the timeline for a person to get a response,” said Meade.

Meade called the guidance too little, too late.

“We have hundreds of thousands of returning citizens in the state of Florida who wish they could have been participating in the primary elections that are going on right now in their community,” said Meade.

In a news conference Thursday, DeSantis blamed the delay on pending litigation against the 2019 statue. He said more will be known once the case is settled.

“I’m sure they’re going to provide appropriate guidance at that time,” the governor said.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is still working to help felons pay back their debts. It has spent $2 million so far to help 2,000 felons. Another $2 million is expected to go out the door by the end of the week. To contribute to the fund, visit WeGotTheVote.org.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.