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Advocates in Florida clamor for a fix for the formerly incarcerated who want to vote

People vote in the midterm elections on Nov. 8, 2022, at a fire station in Hialeah, Fla.
Lynne Sladky
/
AP
People vote in the midterm elections on Nov. 8, 2022, at a fire station in Hialeah, Fla.

Nearly a million Floridians who have finished prison time for a felony remain disenfranchised despite a 2018 ballot measure that promised to restore their voting rights.

And as this year's legislative session wraps up, advocates say Florida lawmakers still haven't done anything to provide clarity for the formerly incarcerated who want to regain their rights.

The reason so many people remain disenfranchised stems from rules Republicans added after voters approved that ballot measure. In 2019, legislators passed a law requiring returning citizens to pay all the fees and fines associated with their sentence before they can vote again.

But lawmakers never created a system to find out who owes what, says Fentrice Driskell, the Democratic leader of the Florida House.

"We have been asking for a database," she said. "Just let people know whether or not they have fines and fees. Let them know how to pay for them. Let them know whether or not they are eligible to register to vote."

Driskell says issues around voting eligibility for the formerly incarcerated came to a head last year when the state's newly created election crimes unit announced a slew of voter fraud arrests.

"We all watched in horror as Gov. [Ron] DeSantis had 20 people arrested," she said. "He had returning citizens who believed that they had registered to vote in a valid way ... he had them arrested."

Those 20 individuals weren't eligible to vote because they had been convicted of murder or sexual assault, which exempted them from getting their rights back even if they paid their fees and fines.

But despite that, most of them were given voter registration cards. Local election officials said they were relying on the state to make sure voters were eligible.

Attorneys representing defendants in these cases have accused the state of entrapping these voters by having a system that allowed them to get a voter registration card.

Roger Weeden, who is representing two individuals charged with alleged voter fraud, told NPR in December that the state could have created a system where local election officials and formerly incarcerated people could see if they're eligible to vote.

"The government shouldn't be able to prosecute cases in which they are almost co-conspirators by sending the registration cards and allowing them to vote," Weeden said.

Abdelilah Skhir, a voting rights policy strategist with the ACLU of Florida, says these arrests have had a chilling effect on anyone with a past conviction.

"People who may have questions around their eligibility don't want to take that risk," he said. "They do the mental calculus and they figure, 'I can either vote and risk getting arrested, or I can just not vote.' "

Skhir says it is clearly the state's responsibility to determine who can vote and who cannot.

Florida lawmakers, however, have decided that for now it's up to voters.

Last week, lawmakers sent Senate Bill 7050 to DeSantis. The legislation would add language to voter registration cards saying: "This card is proof of registration but is not legal verification of eligibility to vote."

The card would say that it is for "information purposes only" and that "[it] is the responsibility of a voter to keep his or her eligibility status current."

Neil Volz — who's with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group that's been pushing the state to create a database — says SB 7050 is a step "in the wrong direction" and can ultimately cause even more confusion.

"It's almost like going into the DMV and getting a driver's license and then being told you can't drive," Volz said. "This bill symbolizes an abandonment of responsibility by the state to do its job and actually fix our broken system."

It's almost like going into the DMV and getting a driver's license and then being told you can't drive.

Volz says he believes lawmakers simply haven't made this issue a priority — even though both Republicans and Democrats agree the murkiness around who can vote is a problem.

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd — a DeSantis appointee — has urged returning citizens to contact his office to determine their eligibility. Advocates say, however, that process often takes months.

Byrd also told lawmakers last month that he thinks a database is a good idea.

"I would love to see a statewide database," he said. "It is beyond my technical ability to explain how that works because you have many different entities."

Byrd said the state would have to come up with a system that houses and transfers information between law enforcement agencies, courts and local election offices across the state. He said it is more complicated than it sounds because all these agencies store and code their data differently.

"I can envision a day that the state of Florida takes the lead and has one centralized way that we can do this, but until that day comes we have to continue to do it the way we are doing it," Byrd said.

And that means the responsibility will stay with voters.

Lawmakers also recently gave more legal authority to a state prosecutor focused on charging people who vote illegally. So, if voters are unsure whether they can vote, the stakes for getting it wrong are about to get higher.

  • Related: From WFSU: Florida lawmakers pass a sweeping elections bill
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    Ashley Lopez
    Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.
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