“If the citizens of Florida cannot rely on the state to determine voter eligibility, then who can we rely on?”
Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), together with four Florida citizens, last week filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Miami against Gov. Ron DeSantis and state officials, alleging a strategic, “years’ long” campaign to actively intimidate and prevent people with former felony convictions from voting.
Other defendants include Cord Byrd, Secretary of State; Mark Glass, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner; Ricky Dixon, Department of Corrections Secretary; and all 67 county supervisor of elections and county clerks of court.
Desmond Meade, executive director of the Nobel Prize-nominated voting rights organization, said in a July 19 Zoom press conference that FRRC began considering litigation “when the arrests started happening” — a reference to 20 returning citizens who were arrested for voting in the 2020 election on orders from DeSantis’ new Office of Election Crimes and Security.
“In the past, if there was someone on the voting roster that wasn’t supposed to be there, the state would go through an administrative process of removing that individual,” Meade said. “This is the first time in my recollection we’ve seen the state going after individuals criminally.”
The most “egregious” part, he said, was that a Supervisor of Elections had conducted a voter registration drive at a local county jail, assuring inmates they would be able to vote. “Two years later, these individuals are being charged, and in each of those cases the individual was issued a voter identification card from the state of Florida.”
Two people caught up in the arrests, Meade said, were Trump voters. That helped seal the decision to litigate, he added. "We fight just as hard for the person who wants to vote for Donald Trump as the person who wants to vote for Barack Obama. In this case, the very first people who suffered from the state’s failure to own up to its responsibility were registered Republicans and voted for Donald Trump.”
The lawsuit notes DeSantis’ remarks that still more election-related arrests would come and details his efforts to gain additional personnel and resources — $3.1 million, triple his current funding as noted by the Tampa Bay Times — for his “election police.”
The election police dragnet is largely seen as a bust, marked by plea bargains, dismissals, a split verdict that’s being appealed and no jail time. But lives were radically upended, as The Washington Post reported. Nonetheless, the arrests have intimidated returning citizens who had their voting rights restored into rethinking whether they’ll vote in the upcoming presidential election for fear their vote could land them back in jail.
“You see people afraid to vote because of a new police task force that’s criminalized voting,” said FRRC Deputy Director Neil Volz during the press conference.
Fear expedited the federal lawsuit — particularly as other states mull the idea of assembling their own election police — but the the crux of the lawsuit is the lack of a statewide centralized database for tracking court-related fines and fees. The lawsuit states, “the Defendants created and perpetuated a bureaucratic morass that prevents people with prior felony convictions from voting or even determining if they are eligible to vote.”
Calling Florida a “national embarrassment,” the lawsuit accuses the Defendants of “completely abdicat[ing] … responsibility to verify the voting eligibility of U.S. citizens and provide them with information about their voting eligibility on which they can rely.”
When Amendment 4, propelled by the FRRC, passed in 2018, 1.4 million returning citizens who had completed their sentences were expected to be able to register to vote. That would have created the largest voter expansion since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971.
More than 64 percent of Floridians supported restoring voting rights to people with nonviolent felony convictions — more, as The Guardian reported, than voted for DeSantis in his first election. This makes Florida one of 23 states that technically allows people with prior felonies to get their voting rights back. But in 2019, Republicans passed Senate Bill 7066, which requires repayment of all monetary sanctions before returning citizens can register to vote — even if they have no ability to pay. Critics of the legislation likened this to a Jim Crow-era poll tax, and it prevented the vast majority of returning citizens from being able to register to vote. According to The Sentencing Project, Florida leads the nation for disenfranchising voters, with more than 1 million Floridians unable to vote, largely because they cannot satisfy their court-related financial obligations; 1 in 10 are Black.
“The glaring flaw was the state of Florida does not have a centralized database system that a person can go to see exactly how much they owe,” Meade said. “This is something we’ve known since 2019, and yet here we are in 2023, and we still do not have a centralized database system.”
The lawsuit points to Alabama where returning citizens' voter eligibility is verified in 44 days through the state's Bureau of Parole and Pardons, to make the point that if Alabama can do it, Florida can too. The lawsuit requests state officials create a voter eligibility database within 60 days and also asks the court to appoint a monitor to ensure the state complies with state and federal voting laws. Plaintiffs also want a declaration that the State of Florida's implementation of Amendment 4 violated the Voting Rights Act as well as the Fourteenth and First Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
“We emphatically believe it’s the state’s responsibility to have a system in place to let any American citizen know if they’re eligible to vote, and if they’re not, what they need to do to become eligible,” said Meade.
“Ever since the people of Florida passed a constitutional amendment to grant people with felony convictions a new right to vote, the Governor and the state have done everything in their power to prevent those 1.4 million new voters from actually voting,” said Carey Dunne, founding principal of Free and Fair Litigation Group, said in a press release. A New York-based nonprofit working to fight “rising authoritarianism in America,” Free and Fair Litigation Group is representing the plaintiffs pro bono together with the law firms Arnold & Porter and Weil Gotshal & Manges.
“Efforts to criminalize ordinary voting behavior are on the rise across America,” Dunne said. “As other states think about creating their own ‘election police,’ we’re proud to work with FRRC, Arnold & Porter and Weil to ensure that eligible voters can vote without fear of prosecution.”