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Voting Rights Group Sues Florida For Registration Process That Sets Former Felons Up to Fail

This article was originally published by Talking Points Memo.

A voting rights group is suing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R-FL) administration for its “byzantine” voter registration process, which has led to the arrests of dozens of formerly incarcerated people who accidentally voted illegally.

The League of Women Voters of Florida filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd (R) for allegedly failing to comply with federal requirements for voter registration.

Their complaint cites the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), a 1993 statute that outlines minimum standards for the process to increase registration and enable state governments to promote, rather than impede, eligible citizens’ rights.

“The State of Florida has chosen to defy that law,” the complaint said. “Florida enacted a byzantine statutory scheme for the restoration of voting rights following felony convictions that made it ‘sometimes hard, sometimes impossible’ for returning citizens (Floridians with past felony convictions) to determine their eligibility to vote.”

“But the Application does not provide any explanation as to when an individual’s ‘right to vote has been restored,’ or any guidance for a voter seeking to make that determination,” the complaint said.

In many ways, the group argued, Florida’s applications do a poor job of informing potential voters of eligibility requirements, which could violate the NVRA.

“It doesn’t say, for example, if you have a felony conviction for murder, this process you cannot use,” Cecile Scoon, the group’s president, told TPM. “It should let people know that. It’s pretty straightforward.”

She also pointed out that there is a substantial usage of legal jargon and excerpts from the Constitution on the application, rendering its rules difficult to read for some. “Even educated people don’t know those references,” she said. 

“Due to the State’s NVRA violation and maze of voter-eligibility rules, returning citizens struggle to accurately complete the Application and voter-registration organizations struggle to assist returning citizens in answering the Application,” the complaint said.

“It just needs to be more specific about what it is exactly you have to do to be able to register to vote,” Scoon said, “instead of just saying if you meet the requirements of Article four, section two…I mean, most people don’t have a specific understanding of what that is.”

The League of Women Voters had been helping formerly incarcerated citizens in the state regain their right to vote since 2015. In 2018, voters elected to reinstate suffrage for former felons through a historic ballot initiative known as Amendment 4. Once the constitutional amendment was passed, about 1.4 million residents regained their right to vote.

But state Republicans weren’t too happy with the development and introduced legislation to add new restrictions on when a previously incarcerated person is eligible to vote in the state. “We’ve had a lot of setbacks—legislators putting on limits and requirements that were not specifically mentioned in the amendment—and it’s created a big mess,” she told TPM. 

In 2019, the Florida GOP tweaked the amendment so that it required returning citizens to pay their court-ordered fines and fees before their rights were reinstated, while barring formerly incarcerated applicants who were convicted of murder or sex crimes from voting entirely. This triggered a lengthy legal battle that complicated the process so much that some people who accidentally voted when they weren’t allowed to ended up in jail.

“When those rules were challenged in federal court, Florida election officials swore up and down that they would assume the responsibility (which is theirs under federal law) for ensuring that new voter registrants […] were actually eligible under the new rules,” Blair Bowie, who runs the Campaign Legal Center’s project to end felony disenfranchisement, told TPM. 

State law does require state election officials to notify counties of ineligible applicants. But Maria Matthews, the director of Florida’s Division of Elections, testified in 2020 that her department had a backlog of 85,000 applications to sift through in order to verify voter eligibility. (A spokesman for Byrd’s office has since told TPM that that figure is out-of-date, but has not provided us with the updated number.) 

As a result, 20 Floridians were arrested last August for voting illegally, even though they’d acquired registration cards and thought they were allowed to vote.

“Florida laid a trap for its citizens,” Bowie said.