Potential New Battleground For Florida Voting Rights Fight Starts To Show

May 28, 2020

A potential new battleground in the battle over voting rights in Florida has opened up. This time it revolves around a form that would bring clarity to who can and cannot vote in the state.

On Sunday, a federal judge struck down controversial parts of a Florida law that made it so people with felony convictions need to pay all fines, fees and restitution before registering to vote.

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In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said that anyone who is “genuinely unable” to pay the money they owe should not be barred from voting. Requiring them to pay money they simply do not have before getting their civil rights restored amounted to discrimination based on wealth, he ruled.

To decipher who that part of the decision applies to, Hinkle ruled that county elections offices and elections supervisors, that were defendants in the case, must put a specific form on their websites. Anyone who sends the form to the state will be able to request a statement of the total amount of money that is owed, and they will also be able to check a form that says, “I believe I am unable to pay the required amount.”

If the state doesn’t respond within 21 days, the person would be declared eligible to vote.

However, out of all the county elections offices that were named defendants in the case, only one has made the document available online.

The Miami-Dade County elections department put the form on its website on Monday morning following the opinion, as part of a larger landing page about Amendment 4. “We got it up there as soon as we could when the decision came down,” Susy Trutie, a spokesperson for the office, told WLRN.

No one has yet submitted one of the forms asking if they are eligible to vote yet, said Trutie.

But in Broward County, just north of Miami-Dade, there was an entirely different response. The office has no immediate plans to put the document on its website.

“It’s not the law yet and the issue is still unsettled,” said Steve Vancore, who handles public relations for the Broward Supervisor of Elections office. “We of course are keeping a close eye on it and as soon as we get the final go ahead will do what the court says.”

Leah Aden, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who is an attorney in the lawsuit, said this is plainly not true.

“It is the law,” she said. “The governor has said he will appeal, but he hasn’t appealed anything yet. And even if he did appeal, there hasn’t been a stay.”

A stay is a legal term for when a higher court temporarily blocks a ruling from going into effect.

“There is no getting around it. This is the law,” said Aden.

None of the other counties with named defendants — Alachua, Leon, Indian River, Manatee, Orange, Sarasota and Hillsborough — have placed the information on their websites.

The Florida Division of Elections has not put up the form or other information ordered by the court on its website either. Aden says the NAACP plans to follow up with the state in the coming days to ask why.

The Florida Division of Elections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The timeline for people with felony convictions who want to vote in August primary elections is extremely narrow. The voter registration deadline is July 20. That means the latest someone can file a form asking the state to clarify eligibility is 21 days before that — on June 30.

The advisory opinion form was designed by Judge Hinkle to simplify the process for people who don’t know if they are eligible to vote, if they owe money for fines or restitution, or if the money has already been paid. The records are held by a dizzying array of state and local government agencies.

In his ruling, Judge Hinkle said it was “sometimes impossible” for someone to learn if they are eligible to register to vote under the state’s “byzantine” record-keeping system. He found that this amounted to an unconstitutional violation of due process. As such, the forms are meant to centralize the question and provide clarity about who is eligible to vote.

But filling out the form is not required to register to vote. According to Hinkle’s ruling, these individuals should be deemed eligible to vote:

  • Anyone that had a public defender during their last felony court case.
  • Anyone who had their fines and restitution converted to a civil lien.
  • Anyone who submits a financial affidavit showing they cannot pay the money owed.

Those who can afford to pay the fines and restitution owed are still expected to pay them.

Groups that register voters are preparing plans to start helping people with felony convictions navigate the new process and the new rules that apply to Floridians. 

“We are devising plans to get slogans out, to start doing radio, doing interviews and social media, and just start pumping it out there,” said Cecile Scoon, the First Vice President of the League of Women Voters of Florida, which was a plaintiff in the court case. “This is a hard fought win and we want to welcome everybody to participate.”