Florida’s felon vot­ing ‘mess’ caus­ing chaos ahead of 2020 elec­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY DAN BOY­LAN

The Land of the Hang­ing Chads isn’t wait­ing un­til Novem­ber 2020 to kick off its tra­di­tional fight over how to run an elec­tion.

A ref­er­en­dum to amend the state con­sti­tu­tion to re­store vot­ing rights to some 1.4 mil­lion Florid­i­ans with felony con­vic­tions was hailed as a break­through in crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form when vot­ers ap­proved it a year ago.

But the state’s halt­ing, po­lit­i­cally charged ef­fort to im­ple­ment the vot­ers’ wishes with barely more than a year be­fore Elec­tion Day is a mess, ac­cord­ing to sup­port­ers, op­po­nents and even the fed­eral judge re­view­ing the process.

Given Florida’s long tra­di­tion of ra­zor­thin elec­tion mar­gins, how the state ul­ti­mately im­ple­ments the mea­sure could eas­ily sway the out­come of the presidenti­al con­test in the state — and per­haps the na­tion.

“This could well be the tiny fac­tor that tips the state,” long­time Florida-based poll­ster Fer­nand Amandi said in an in­ter­view.

With 29 elec­toral votes, Florida is con­sid­ered the rich­est prize among the na­tion’s swing states and con­sis­tently hosts mem­o­rable, bare-knuckle bat­tles be­tween Democrats and Repub­li­cans.

Three of the past five presidenti­al elec­tions in Florida have been de­cided by 1 per­cent­age point or less. The in­fa­mous clash be­tween George W. Bush and Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore in 2000 was set­tled by a mere 537 hotly dis­puted votes. Florida Gov. Ron DeSan­tis, a Repub­li­can, won last year by just 32,000 votes out of more than 8 mil­lion bal­lots cast.

Florid­i­ans now find them­selves at ground zero in the vot­ing rights bat­tle af­ter the ap­proval last year of Amend­ment 4, a bal­lot mea­sure that al­lowed former felons — other than those con­victed of mur­der or se­ri­ous sex of­fenses — to regis­ter to vote once their pun­ish­ment is com­plete.

Billed as a way to end a racist, re­stric­tion­ist pol­icy dat­ing from the state’s Jim Crow days that im­peded blacks from vot­ing, Amend­ment 4 passed by 64.6%, with sup­port from Repub­li­cans, Democrats and in­de­pen­dents.

But that re­sult plunged the state into a rag­ing de­bate over how to de­fine a com­plete sen­tence of pun­ish­ment.

The Repub­li­can-con­trolled state Leg­is­la­ture in Tal­la­has­see ap­proved a pro­posal this year stip­u­lat­ing that pun­ish­ment is com­plete when all court fines, fees and le­gal resti­tu­tion to vic­tims are paid. Op­po­nents such as the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and the NAACP likened the pro­viso to the re­vival of a poll tax from the seg­re­ga­tion­ist era.

Sup­port­ers of the Leg­is­la­ture’s move said law­mak­ers had a re­spon­si­bil­ity to im­ple­ment the amend­ment in or­derly fash­ion with lit­tle di­rect in­struc­tion from the text.

“We’re here to­day be­cause we have a tough prob­lem to solve,” state Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Repub­li­can and one of the main ar­chi­tects of the leg­is­la­tion, told Politico in March.

The Florida Court Clerks & Comptrolle­rs, a statewide, non­profit mem­ber as­so­ci­a­tion, es­ti­mated that more than $1 bil­lion in felony fines are on the books from 2013 to 2018 alone, with pay­back rates at less than 20% a year. One an­a­lyst es­ti­mated that the Leg­is­la­ture’s move would still block vot­ing rights for up to 80% of ex-felons who have com­pleted their prison time.

Mr. DeSan­tis, who op­posed Amend­ment 4, signed the leg­is­la­tion with an eye on fight­ing it later, lo­cal pun­dits say. At the time, he wrote a let­ter say­ing the law “con­firms that the amend­ment does not ap­ply to a felon who has failed to com­plete all the terms of his sen­tence.”

Pay­ing it back

The spot­light then fell on the com­plex­ity of pay­ing fines, es­pe­cially resti­tu­tion to vic­tims.

Florida has no cen­tral data­base for such pay­ments, which vary widely across its 67 coun­ties. Adding to the con­fu­sion, fines range from a few hun­dred dol­lars to mas­sive mil­lion-dol­lar awards and can be col­lected while felons are in prison or out on pa­role. Pay­ments move through in­ter­me­di­aries such as court clerks or the state De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions.

The Florida Rights Restora­tion Coali­tion, a non­profit Amend­ment 4 sup­porter, has es­ti­mated that 500,000 of 1.4 mil­lion former felons would be pre­vented from regis­ter­ing to vote be­cause of the law. The lib­eral Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice said most of those af­fected are likely to be black and have low in­comes.

The ACLU, NAACP and League of Women Vot­ers filed a law­suit against the Leg­is­la­ture’s move that was heard in fed­eral court this week.

At a hear­ing in down­town Tal­la­has­see, state at­tor­neys ar­gued that the Leg­is­la­ture’s re­quire­ments were rea­son­able in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the lan­guage in Amend­ment 4.

But U.S. District Judge Robert Hin­kle, an ap­pointee of Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, strongly dis­agreed and ac­cused law­mak­ers of cre­at­ing a “mess” that has left former felons afraid to regis­ter to vote.

“What we have now is an ad­min­is­tra­tive night­mare,” Mr. Hin­kle said.

With a rul­ing ex­pected in the com­ing weeks and Florida’s presidenti­al pri­mary set for March 17, Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can Party op­er­a­tives are mon­i­tor­ing the pro­ceed­ings closely.

Poll­sters say the in­jec­tion of former felons onto the voter rolls only adds more un­cer­tainty to a po­lit­i­cally un­pre­dictable state. Florida has roughly 4.4 mil­lion reg­is­tered Repub­li­cans, about 4.6 mil­lion Democrats and nearly 3 mil­lion in­de­pen­dents.

This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice reports.

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