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In Florida, felons must pay court debts before they can vote.

by Amy Gardner and Lori Rozsa (The Washington Post)

In Florida, felons must pay court debts before they can vote. But with no system to do so, many have found it impossible.

MIAMI — The promise of an amendment to Florida's state constitution seemed huge when it was overwhelmingly approved in November 2018: As many as 1.5 million felons previously barred from casting ballots in the state would soon be able to vote.

Two years later, those expectations have shriveled, with proponents estimating that fewer than 50,000 felons have registered.

Since March, the coronavirus pandemic has ground efforts to a near-halt, reducing the prospects for a burst of registration before the November election. Even before the shutdown, however, Republican-backed legislation circumscribing the reach of Amendment 4 had made it virtually impossible for most felons to participate, according to those who have tried to register and court testimony. That law requires felons to pay all court-related fines, fees and restitution before registering to vote — and to swear, under penalty of perjury, that the debts are paid.

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But a vast number of felons are too poor to pay their fines, according to evidence presented in a lawsuit challenging the restrictions. And even if they can afford to do so, a patchy system of court records does not always allow them to know what they owe or whether they've paid.

"They kept sending me from office to office to office to office," Jamall Williams, 38, who runs a car-detailing business in Tallahassee, recalled about his months-long inquiry with the Leon County court clerk's office, which keeps the record of his 2009 conviction for grand theft auto. Williams said he was eager to vote — both to set an example for his children and to please his wife, a regular voter-registration volunteer. "That's how I met her," he said. "She tried to register me to vote, and I wasn't able, because I'm a convicted felon."

His enthusiasm faded when he realized he could risk a new arrest if he inaccurately swore that he had no court debts. "I kind of quit. I don't want to go to jail for that."

State officials promised to set up a process for felons who are unable to pay to be allowed to vote anyway, as well as a streamlined system for determining what is owed. But 11 months after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the legislation, and with the fall presidential election inching ever closer, that system still doesn't exist. A spokeswoman for DeSantis did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The red tape encountered by convicted felons in Florida has deflated the buoyancy that many felt after Amendment 4 passed — and reinforced suspicions that the subsequent restrictions were put in place to keep felons from the polls.

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"The governor's office and the Republican legislature are continuing to put up roadblock after roadblock after roadblock for the individuals who want to get their rights reinstated," said state Sen. Perry E. Thurston Jr. (D), who represents part of Broward County. "This is clearly not an effort to help with the will of the people, but to thwart the will of the people." At the time of its passage with 65 percent of the vote, Amendment 4 was hailed as the largest reenfranchisement of voters since poll taxes and literacy tests were banned during the civil rights era.

The ballot measure restored voting rights to felons who have completed "all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation." It excludes those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

Republicans who supported the legislation detailing who is eligible to vote under Amendment 4 said at the time that their goal was only to help implement a sparsely worded ballot measure.

And DeSantis has disputed that having to pay off fines is equivalent to a poll tax, telling reporters last year, "The only reason you're paying restitution is because you were convicted of a felony." Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer defending state officials in the legal challenge, said in court this month that lawmakers, who approved Senate Bill 7066 on a strict party-line vote, had an obligation to be "faithful stewards" of Amendment 4 by clarifying how it would work. "The 'all terms of sentence' language is clear," said Jazil, who represents Secretary of State Laurel Lee in the case. "That language is unambiguous. That language includes the payment of fines, fees, costs, restitution and all other financial terms of the sentence, before the restoration of voting rights."

The approach differs vastly from those of other states that have restored the voting rights of felons in recent years. In Kentucky, for instance, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) established a website where nonviolent felons can immediately check their eligibility status. Many newly released defendants automatically receive a certificate granting them the right to vote. And the state takes on the responsibility of determining whether a fine is owed, rather than leaving it to people to sort through.

Florida, in contrast, imposed requirements — but did not lay out a path for felons to meet them, critics say. That is the crux of the lawsuit 17 felons filed against DeSantis and other state officials. The plaintiffs argue that Republicans effectively established a poll tax, a practice banned in 1964 with the ratification of the 24th Amendment. The suit also argues that the law discriminates against African American Floridians, who make up a disproportionate share of felons. During the eight-day trial, which concluded last Wednesday, the plaintiffs introduced evidence that the state had not created a system to help felons find out how much they owe. "The authors of Senate Bill 7066 knew that Florida lacked the data to know whether returning citizens are eligible to vote," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice who represents the plaintiffs, referring to the coalition's term for felons who have completed their sentences. The state "did nothing" to fix that, Morales-Doyle said — even after U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle found the requirement unconstitutional in a preliminary ruling in the case. "They let important local elections and a presidential primary go by while hundreds of thousands of citizens faced the choice of forgoing their right to vote or facing potential prosecution," he said.

Hinkle, who promised a speedy ruling on the case, expressed disapproval of the lack of a state system.

"You can't vote unless you know something you don't know, and the only way you're going to be able to vote is to sign a false affidavit," he said during closing arguments.

"We were talking about having this all done and in place where people could vote in the 2020 election," he added. "But this suggests that they wouldn't even be able to vote in the 2024 election." It is hard to predict which party would benefit from a mass infusion of felons into the Florida electorate. One expert witness called by the defendants testified that Republican lawmakers passed Senate Bill 7066 in part because of their perception that the preponderance among felons of African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic, would give that party an advantage. Data shows that one in five felons is black. How a court battle on felon voting rights in Florida could affect the 2020 election

Nevertheless, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a nonprofit organization that led the effort to pass Amendment 4, attracted support from across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, groups backed by the libertarian Koch network and the Christian Coalition.

And after the Senate bill passed, the coalition tried to avoid a political battle and got to work raising money to help felons pay off their fees.

"We knew that there were going to be some financial obligations that were directly connected to the completion of sentences," said Desmond Meade, a coalition founder.

According to Daniel Smith, a politics professor who studies voting issues at the University of Florida, as many as 775,000 felons in Florida owe court-related debts — and about 70 percent are indigent. The average felon owes about $1,500, Meade said.

The coalition has raised more than $600,000 and has been contacting felons to help them pay off their fines and fees. It also began working with local prosecutors, court clerks and public defenders to seek sentence modifications wherever possible to eliminate or reduce debts. That task has grown more challenging because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, with phone calls taking the place of door-to-door canvassing. Even before the spread of the coronavirus, Meade and other advocates found that it would prove impossible for many to meet the obligations, even with money in hand. Fees are recorded by different agencies — prosecutors, court clerks and in some cases collection agencies. There is little clarity about what qualifies as a "legal financial obligation." "How is an individual supposed to know what the rule is if even the courts and elected officials can't explain it?" asked Jessica Younts, the coalition's vice president.

The exhausting nature of the task was clear one day in early March, when Younts accompanied half a dozen people seeking to pay their fines to the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building in Miami to pay off their fines and fees.

Figuring out how much each person owed had required hours of phone calls and weeks of record collection. Some clerk's offices don't take calls after 12 p.m. Some required a case number that the individuals didn't have. Some couldn't find older cases in their computer systems. And none could look up records from other jurisdictions.

These six had made it — but only with the help from the coalition's team. Angela Calloway, 50, who was seeking to pay off $500 in court fees after numerous felony convictions, was fortunate to have had a copy of one of her court filings on her mobile phone, because the clerk had been unable to find her file without it.

"You don't know how much of a relief this is to me," said Chequilla Gandy, 27, standing at a customer window in the clerk's office as her debt of about $800 was paid for a 2016 conviction for discharging a firearm from her car. With her fines paid, Gandy, a mother of two who works the graveyard shift at a Dunkin' doughnut shop, was able to get a driver's license and apply for higher-paying jobs.

"To have any rights in the United States feels good," Gandy said, adding: "I want to be able to make decisions. It's just about having dignity for yourself."

Younts counted the day as a victory — yet also an illustration of the challenge of qualifying felons on a mass scale across the state.

The coalition has received about 5,000 requests from felons for help paying fines and fees but has paid debts for fewer than 1,000 of them so far. Thousands more, advocates said, probably don't even know where to turn for help.

Even state and local officials acknowledged the hurdles felons face. In the federal trial, they testified that determining a person's financial obligation sometimes requires sifting through different computer systems that don't talk to one another, and in some cases paging through old paper files.

Douglas Bakke, the chief operating officer of the Hillsborough County court clerk's office, testified that he and four employees took 12 to 15 hours to research the obligations of a single felon. Even then, they were not able to confirm the exact amount owed, he said. Bakke said newer cases are easier to research. But researching the cases of tens of thousands of convicted felons in Hillsborough, which includes Tampa, "would be quite an overwhelming task."

Maria Matthews, the director of the Florida Division of Elections, said figuring out how much restitution someone owes can be even harder, and her office still hasn't established a process for doing so. Matthews also said her office will be able to process only 57 registration applications from felons per day.

In an interview, Andrew Warren, the state attorney in Hillsborough County, said systems for finding out how much a felon owes vary by county. There is no statewide database, meaning each case can take hours and even days to research, especially if the person has multiple convictions in different counties.

"We don't have the staff to manage that," he said.

Warren supports Amendment 4 and is working with the coalition to create a "rocket docket" in his county to allow cases to be heard swiftly and financial obligations to be reduced, eliminated or turned into community service hours.

"People want those who fulfilled their sentences to be able to vote," he said. That view is not shared among prosecutors and clerks statewide, however. JD Peacock, the court clerk in Okaloosa County, said that kind of program would not go over well in his community. "You're talking about the most red county in the state," he said.

In court this month, state officials said they have a plan that would allow a felon to satisfy his or her obligation with proof of payment to any court-related entity, even if it's not clear what the payment is for, and even if the money is going toward fees and collection agencies and not toward the original debt.

In court, Julie Ebenstein, a lawyer for the ACLU representing the 17 felons, said the concept undermines the rationale for the law by allowing restitution and other fines to go unpaid. Hinkle, the presiding judge in the lawsuit, temporarily blocked Senate Bill 7066 as it applied to the 17 named plaintiffs in a preliminary ruling last fall that was upheld by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in late March, and he repeatedly warned the state to get to work on a remedy.

Judge rules Florida can’t block felons from voting, even if they have unpaid fines Hinkle's final ruling will apply to all felons in the state.

Toward the end of closing arguments, the judge said there was "no doubt" that Senate Bill 7066 discriminates against African Americans, and he rejected the defendants' "faithful steward" argument, saying the law goes far afield from the language of Amendment 4. "I don't think I'm going to surprise you," he said.

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