Wording, legal fights create confusion over Amendment 4 felon voting rights

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Confusion over the law that gives felons the right to vote could affect not just Florida, but the nation.

Wording, legal fights and a lack of oversight is creating confusion over who can vote and who cannot.

Right now, only people who’ve finished their prison sentence plus parole time and have paid off all fines, fees and restitution are legally allowed to vote. But those rules are changing, and the state is not double-checking to make sure they’re being followed, which means some groups are preparing for possible Election Day issues.

READ MORE: Amendment 4 grants ex-felons ability to register to vote, but it’s far from a done deal

A court ruled Wednesday that Florida cannot bar felons who served their time from voting, even if they haven’t paid their fines or court fees, but Gov. Ron DeSantis wants the judges to reconsider.

In 2018, nearly 65% of Florida residents voted to pass Amendment 4, which gives felons who were not convicted of murder or sexual offenses the right to vote if they complete all “terms of sentence.”

DeSantis then signed a bill into law that defined “terms of sentence” to include all court fees a felon might owe. Seventeen people sued the state after proving they could pay.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the original ruling by a Tallahassee federal judge that said requiring paying all fines and fees first is an unfair poll tax.

Related: Court: Florida can’t bar felons from vote over fines, fees

DeSantis has said he wants all 12 of the appeals judges, not just the three who ruled on Wednesday, to look at the issue. That means it could end up going to the U.S. Supreme Court and take a year before it’s resolved.

The Florida Democratic Party has set up a hotline to help explain who can and cannot vote.

“When everybody votes, we all win,” said Wes Hodge, chairman for Orange County Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party also has 120 more volunteers helping with this election cycle statewide compared to just before the last presidential election, in part because there’s confusion.

On the Florida voter registration application, there are two different forms with three different questions, asking if a felon’s rights have been restored. None of the questions mention paying off fines, fees and restitution, which lawmakers made a voting requirement for felons in 2019.

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles says the state is only flagging new felons or someone convicted of murder or sexual assault.

“At this point they’re not doing a check on it," Cowles said.

That means some names on the voter rolls could come down, depending on how the legal fights surrounding the requirement for paying fines, fees and restitution pan out.

It could also mean that, come Election Day in November, some people could vote even though they shouldn’t, which may lead to challenges.

Cowles said “very few” votes are challenged, and that it “remains to be seen” if there will be more votes challenged this year.

Ruben Saldana said he used to be a gang leader. Now 44, he was hoping to cast his first vote ever.

“My voice matters,” Saldana said. “I have a right to vote, just like everyone else."

Channel 9 reached out to the Republican Party, but haven’t heard back yet if it’s preparing for issues with Amendment 4.

A Florida A&M law professor warned people to be careful, because you can face a felony charge if you are found to be voting illegally.

Christopher Boyce, WFTV.com

Christopher Boyce joined WFTV in January of 2019.

Adam Poulisse, WFTV.com

Adam Poulisse joined WFTV in November 2019.

Cierra Putman

Cierra Putman, WFTV.com

Cierra Putman flew south to join Eyewitness News in July 2016.