Florida’s prosecution of ex-felons for registering to vote was based on the state’s own noncompliance with federal law, according to a new lawsuit.
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In 2018, Floridians overwhelmingly voted in favor of Amendment 4, which was meant to restore the voting rights of 1.4 million former felons. Ever since, the state’s Republican-controlled government has been hard at work reversing the will of the people by creating obstacles to allowing the former felons to vote. Now a coalition of voting rights groups is suing Florida over one of these efforts, which experts say suppresses the Black vote.
“Amendment 4 became one of the largest expansions of voting rights since the Constitution was amended in 1971,” said John Cusick, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). “In response to this enfranchisement, the Legislature went back into session and resurrected a bunch of different barriers to requiring legal, financial obligations as a precondition to voting, and that did tremendous harm to folks.”
These barriers included what the Legislature failed to do, according to the lawsuit. One of the obstacles was the voting registration form itself, which included no information about whose rights had been restored by Amendment 4, and whose had not. The flawed voter registration form was then used to justify high-profile arrests of former felons who believed their right to vote had been restored.
Citing Florida’s failure to inform voters of their eligibility, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Florida Congress of the NAACP are suing the state.
Amendment 4, and the resulting efforts to weaken its objective, disproportionately affect the Black vote, Cusick said. Before the amendment was approved, Black Floridians accounted for one-third of the former felons barred from voting despite making up only 16 percent of the state’s population, Cusick said. One in five voting-age Black Floridians was barred from voting for life.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that’s part of the American tradition,” Cusick said. “Amendment 4 and the response to Amendment 4 is one of these historical patterns.”
What should have been a straightforward restoration of voting rights quickly became a legal nightmare.
Instead, “Florida enacted a byzantine statutory scheme for the restoration of voting rights following felony convictions,” the complaint states.
For example, the state’s GOP-led Legislature enacted, and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed, Senate Bill 7066, which imposed further exceptions for ex-felons who owed court-imposed debts. Without a centralized system, knowing what an individual owed was “sometimes hard, sometimes impossible,” according to a previously filed lawsuit in which the 11th Circuit upheld SB 7066.
The Legislature resurrected the very lifetime bans that a supermajority of voters repealed when they voted for Amendment 4, Cusick said.
As a result, 20 Floridians were arrested last July, at least one of them at gunpoint, for registering to vote. It was one of the high-publicity stunts DeSantis has become known for. The raids were meant to show that the GOP governor was tough on “voter fraud.”
In a move universally condemned by voting rights advocates, DeSantis announced during a press conference that he had used the statewide prosecutor’s office to arrest the former felons for registering to vote. When judges ruled that the statewide prosecutor did not have that authority, the GOP-led Legislature gave it to them in a partisan vote.
While many of the charges were dropped, the damage was done. The people who faced prosecution lost jobs, lost standing in their communities, and lost faith in their state and country. And, in what many voting rights advocates believe was the point of the raids, the arrests have had a chilling effect on voter registration among those who have had their rights restored.
The suit calls out the flawed voter registration form DeSantis essentially weaponized in these targeted arrests.
“Returning citizens and the non-partisan organizations working with them struggle to accurately complete Florida’s voter registration form because it lacks the necessary specificity of eligibility requirements for people with prior criminal convictions,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the Legal Defense Fund (LDF). “The harms are compounded by Florida’s maze of voter eligibility rules and Florida’s targeted prosecutions of returning citizens for what appear to be honest mistakes in answering the flawed voter registration form.”
The form asks individuals to affirm either that they have not been convicted of a felony or that they have had their voting rights restored. It provides no information regarding Amendment 4 rights restoration.
As a result, the voting rights groups claim, Floridians could not have known whether their voting rights had been restored when they registered to vote.
Because the form does not adequately inform voters of eligibility requirements, it violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), the suit alleges. The NVRA requires state forms specify the eligibility requirements to which voters are subject.
Florida’s voter registration form violates NVRA requirements on three counts, according to the suit. First, it does not inform those convicted of murder or felony sex offense that they are ineligible unless they have received clemency. Second, it does not inform those with other past convictions that they are not eligible if they owe court-imposed debts or are under court supervision. Finally, it does not inform those convicted in another state that they are not eligible unless they are eligible to vote in that state.
“In failing to provide adequate voter guidance, the state is presenting an impossible choice to returning citizens: stay disenfranchised or risk criminal prosecution,” said Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida.
Black Americans are disproportionately likely to be among returning citizens, Aden noted. If eligible voters choose to remain disenfranchised for fear of prosecution, the Black vote will be suppressed.
The state was warned in a letter before the suit was filed. Florida had 90 days to comply with NVRA requirements and make appropriate modifications to its voter registration form.
“Florida’s failure to comply with the NVRA has harmful consequences for returning citizens, who are disproportionately Black people,” Aden said. “We seek a remedy so that all eligible Floridians can access our democracy fairly and fully.”