TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With Florida’s Oct. 5 voter-registration deadline looming, convicted felons and their advocates are scrambling to clear up outstanding court-related debts or take advantage of special programs so that people who have served their time behind bars can cast ballots in this year’s presidential election.
The race against the clock intensified after an Atlanta-based appeals court this month upheld a controversial Florida law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” -- fees, fines, costs and restitution -- associated with their convictions before they can be eligible to vote.
The 2019 law was aimed at implementing a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms sentence including parole or probation.”
Backers of what appeared as Amendment 4 on the state’s 2018 ballot maintain that it affects more than 1 million Floridians who lost their voting rights after felony convictions and who have completed their time in lock-up.
But just a fraction of the so-called “returning citizens” targeted by the measure will be able to participate in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
“The Legislature purposely set up a system that was designed for voter suppression, and it has worked,” Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a former Democratic state senator, told The News Service of Florida.
Supporters of the amendment blame the dearth of felons' registering to vote on the coronavirus pandemic, uncertainty about voting eligibility and a series of contradictory court decisions culminating in a Sept. 11 ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the 2019 law.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers said the 2019 law followed the wording of the constitutional amendment, pointing, at least in part, to the phrase “completion of all terms of sentence.”
Siding with DeSantis, the Atlanta-based appellate court overturned a ruling by a district judge, who said the state cannot deny voting rights to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay” court-ordered debts.
The 11th Circuit’s decision means that felons must clear up financial obligations to be legally eligible to register and vote.
But determining how much they owe and how much they have paid can be what some lawyers have called a “Kafkaesque nightmare.”
Court records are missing, incomplete or contradictory, and information about payments to collection agencies can be difficult or impossible to track down.
“There’s no way for most returning citizens who owe costs and fees to know how much they owe,” Aronberg said. “This is a system that was designed to fail and as a way to suppress the vote in the 2020 elections and beyond, and it has worked. It’s really unfortunate.”
Coming just weeks before Florida’s voter-registration deadline, the appellate court ruling created a tsunami in the civil-rights community and legal circles, with hundreds of lawyers volunteering for efforts already underway to help felons discover the amounts of fees, fines, costs and restitution ordered at sentencing.
“A lot of people were outraged by the (court) decision, by the way that our Legislature undermined a democratic process,” Miami lawyer Aidil Oscariz who trains other attorneys to help with a felon voting-rights program in Miami-Dade County. “A lot of people have been disappointed, but lawyers have stepped up. They found it really egregious and stepped up and want to find a way to help.”
The Miami-Dade program and a similar one in Palm Beach County were crafted by public defenders, state attorneys, clerks of court, judges and others to allow sentence modifications for voting purposes.
Meanwhile, a group that pushed the constitutional amendment has taken a different approach.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has amassed more than $23 million for its “Fines and Fees” fund aimed at zeroing out felons' financial obligations.
Neil Volz, deputy director of the organization, told the News Service that as of Thursday, his group had spent $5 million to clear up court-ordered debts for 5,000 felons, who are now eligible to vote.
It’s unclear, however, how many felons have registered to vote since the amendment went into effect in January 2019.
The state doesn’t keep a record, but Florida elections officials said during a court hearing this year that they had flagged 85,000 voter-registration applications of felons who may have had outstanding financial obligations. They said they hadn’t taken action to alert local elections officials to remove the flagged voters from the rolls, however.
Volz -- whose group is also engaged in voter-registration activities -- acknowledged that he’d like to see more felons participating in the upcoming presidential election. Volz registered to vote this year thanks to Amendment 4 and had other civil rights, such as the right to serve on a jury and run for public office, restored by the Board of Executive Clemency this week.
“On the one hand, we fight every day for one person to be eligible to vote and have their voice heard. On the other hand, we wish that we could get more people registered to vote, and we’ll continue to fight beyond this election to keep tearing down barriers to returning citizens' ability to fully participate in the community,” Volz said in a phone interview.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a North Miami Beach Democrat, helped craft a provision in the 2019 law that allows judges to alter financial penalties included in sentences. The provision is designed to allow courts to clear off debts for voting purposes but keep felons on the hook for what they owe to victims.
Pizzo, a former prosecutor, praised Miami-Dade County’s process.
“They have a wonderful, efficient, competent system set up that’s just woefully underused,” he said in a phone interview.
Confusion about the court decisions and COVID-19 have stymied sentence-modification efforts in the state’s most populous county, Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez said.
With the aid of volunteer attorneys, his office has processed thousands of applications for sentence modification, which require the approval of judges. But just hundreds of them have been approved by judges so far.
Martinez said it’s too late to apply for a sentence modification prior to the Oct. 5 voter-registration deadline because there’s “not enough time for obtaining records, contacting victims,” who need to sign off on the plan.
“We’re finishing processing all the ones already in the pipeline,” he said.
About 115 people have gone through a sentence-modification program in Palm Beach County, according to Nancy Chanin, a Delray Beach activist who helped coordinate the county’s effort to erase felons' court costs.
Sixteen convicted felons with outstanding court debts went through a Hillsborough County program, but their voting eligibility is uncertain due to the court ruling, said Andrew Warren, the county’s state attorney.
“The state government and the courts have had two years to figure this out, and instead they’ve only made it more confusing and difficult for people,” he said in an email. “There’s an election 40 days away, and the rights of tens of thousands of people are on the line, and large parts of our government seem to be oblivious -- or maybe they just don’t care.”
Warren put his program on hold following the Sept. 11 appellate-court ruling but said “we remain committed to developing a process within the law that delivers the promise of Amendment 4 to everyone in our community who qualifies.”