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Changes sought in felon voting process

TALLAHASSEE , Fla. — State election officials on Friday listened to suggestions about how to update the process for convicted felons to seek what are known as advisory opinions about their eligibility to vote, with advocates calling for a procedure that provides “certainty” for people who have completed their sentences.

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A rule-development workshop came after mediation between elections officials and plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging how the state carried out a 2018 constitutional amendment aimed at restoring voting rights of felons.

The lawsuit, filed in July by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and individual plaintiffs, described a “bureaucratic morass” encountered by felons trying to find out if they were eligible to vote.

Neil Volz, deputy director of the rights-restoration group, laid out his organization’s general goals for the advisory-opinion process during Friday’s hour-long meeting.

“The basics that we’re hoping to see .. is relatively simple. That anybody can get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ from the government, that they can bank on that, that we can take that uncertainty out of the process,” said Volz, a convicted felon who has had his civil rights restored by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet.

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Ashley Davis, deputy general counsel for the Florida Department of State, asked Volz for additional input on what the rule should say.

“Please tell us all the things, the boundaries, the requirements, deadlines, anything that you want to be able to see in this rule and in this process. That’s exactly what we’re trying to just elicit,” Davis said.

Volz said the state’s form should be “clear, concise,” offer as many “yes” or “no” questions as possible, and make it possible for someone to give “the state all the tools it needs to run through all the various databases.”

Volz’s group and others will provide additional comments in writing to state elections officials in the coming days.

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Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley told Davis and Florida Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews that the state should create a process that includes a deadline for determining whether potential voters are eligible and provide a “feedback mechanism” and tracking system so people know their requests for advisory opinions have been received.

Earley pointed to “a backlog of people” who are uncertain about their voting statuses.

“We’re hearing that from our voters and prospective voters who are frankly, as they’ve told me, they’re concerned about whether they should try to get registered because they just don’t know what their status is. It’s very difficult to determine that,” Earley said.

Earley, who said his office has hired additional staff members who focus solely on “this felon review process,” also suggested the state consider something akin to a “statute of limitations” for sentences imposed many years ago, which could allow more potential voters to be eligible.

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“Some of this data might be very, very tough to unearth,” Earley said. “And I would hate for that to be a roadblock that leads to a dead end, because the problem with determining eligibility is not really on the applicants’ part but the government resources that are available to approve or disprove eligibility.”

Confusion over voter eligibility stems from a controversial 2019 law that DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved to carry out the constitutional amendment, which said voting rights would be restored “upon completion of all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”

The 2019 law required felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines and other court costs — associated with their convictions before they could be eligible to vote. But tracking down records related to sentencing has been problematic, time-consuming and, in some instances, impossible, according to elections supervisors and lawyers familiar with the process.

In addition, lawmakers at DeSantis’ behest in 2022 created the Office of Elections Crimes and Security. Since then, more than two-dozen people have been arrested for voting illegally. Many of the people who were arrested maintained that they were convicted felons who believed they were eligible to vote and were provided voter-registration cards by elections officials.

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Amy Keith, executive director of Common Cause Florida, said people with prior felony convictions must be able to rely on decisions by elections officials.

“When an individual receives a decision saying they are eligible, they must be able to register and vote on the basis of that decision, with no risk of any civil or criminal penalty, even if there was an error in the decision,” Keith, who joined the meeting by phone, said.

Keith said eligibility determinations should be made within 30 days “so that individuals are not left in limbo.”

Also, people should not have to “acquire or submit records” to learn whether they are eligible to vote, Keith said.

Cecile Scoon, co-director of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the state should adopt recommendations made by a task force assembled after the amendment was passed, such as creating a database that includes records from agencies such as county clerks of courts, the Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

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Her group is recommending that advisory opinions be provided within 90 days of requests. In addition, Scoon said people who are indigent should be able to forego the costs of background searches by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the state should be responsible for obtaining the records necessary to determine their eligibility.

“So, to make it open to everyone regardless of their income because our ability to get justice and get answers from our government should not be tied to our pocketbooks,” Scoon, an attorney, said.

Friday’s meeting was a first step in creating a rule that could resolve the legal battle. The plaintiffs “decided to voluntarily dismiss their case without prejudice and may re-file their case if the rulemaking, or subsequent implementation of any adopted rule, fails to alleviate their concerns,” a mediator wrote in a report filed May 13 in the lawsuit.

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