Florida, County Officials Target Felons’ Voting Case

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, county clerks of court and elections supervisors want a federal judge to toss out a lawsuit challenging the way a 2018 constitutional amendment aimed at restoring felons’ voting rights has been carried out, saying the plaintiffs are seeking an “unprecedented judicial takeover” of voter-registration procedures.

Attorneys for the state and county officials across Florida filed a motion Monday arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed and disputing allegations of violating the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

The 2018 state constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, was designed to restore voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences. But the lawsuit, filed in July, contends that a “bureaucratic morass” has prevented people from voting or determining whether they are eligible to vote.

Much of the issue stems from a 2019 law (SB 7066) that required felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines and other court costs — associated with their convictions before they could be eligible to vote.

In part of the 71-page motion Monday, attorneys for the state and the county officials wrote that the “ultimate complaint is that it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a felon has completed the financial terms of a sentence.” But they said that doesn’t mean the process is unconstitutional.

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“Florida’s voting restoration laws are of general application,” the motion said. “They permissively require voters — felons who are best positioned to know their sentences, perhaps in multiple cases and multiple jurisdictions — to comply with those laws through primarily their own efforts. They provide ‘more than adequate’ procedures to challenge ineligibility. Thus, as a matter of law, Florida’s SB 7066 procedures do not infringe upon plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”

But the lawsuit contended that the “record reveals a years’ long campaign of acts and omissions by the defendants that have thwarted the aspirations of the citizens of Florida who enacted Amendment 4, and the aspirations of those whose rights it restored.”

“The defendants’ conduct includes the provision of inaccurate, incomplete and misleading information to such citizens when they try to determine their eligibility to vote, and the perpetuation of a byzantine process in which, among other things, a potential voter’s eligibility is often determined by local practices that vary depending on the county in which they live,” the lawsuit said. “The result is confusion and uncertainty that deters them from registering to vote, as well as an unlawful system that permits or denies the fundamental right to vote based on one’s geographic status within the state.”

The requirement in the 2019 law that felons pay “legal financial obligations” before getting their voting rights restored has fueled years of controversy. In 2020, for example, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a constitutional challenge to the law.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and four individual plaintiffs filed this year’s lawsuit, seeking a ruling that the way Amendment 4 has been carried out violates the Voting Rights Act, violates equal-protection rights and places an unconstitutional “undue burden on the right to vote.”

The lawsuit, for example, also seeks an order requiring the establishment of a statewide database “that allows individuals with prior felony convictions to determine if they have outstanding LFOs (legal financial obligations); the amount of any outstanding LFOs; the jurisdiction to which they owe any outstanding LFOs; and where payment may be made to satisfy any outstanding LFOs.”

But in the motion filed Monday, attorneys for the state and the county officials raised a series of arguments, including contending that plaintiffs do not have legal standing and pointing to sovereign immunity. The motion said sovereign immunity limits the authority of federal courts in deciding issues related to state laws.

“While plaintiffs label their claims as federal statutory and constitutional claims, labels cannot obscure the gravamen of their claims, which allege violations of state law,” the motion said.

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The motion also disputed the plaintiffs’ arguments about issues such as creating a statewide database, in part saying “it is beyond dispute that the 67 (county court) clerks have no authority or ability to create a statewide database of LFOs for purposes of voting rights determinations. Such a database would need to allow not only for multi-jurisdictional data input, but for multi-agency input as well. Even if clerks had such powers, they would lack the resources to execute such an unfunded mandate.”

The case, filed in Miami, has been assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. The plaintiffs will submit arguments in opposition to the motion to dismiss.

“We have engaged the courts because the system is broken, and this effort can help ensure real election integrity throughout Florida,” Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said Wednesday. “This motion is a part of that process. We respect that process and our attorneys will respond to this legal motion in court. If you can’t count on the state to verify voter eligibility, who can you count on?”

— News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.

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