TALLAHASSEE — Calling the state a “national disgrace,” a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and other elected officials of not “delivering on the promise” of a 2018 constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of convicted felons.
The lawsuit, filed by the Florida Restoration Coalition, led by Orlando’s Desmond Meade and others, describes the “bureaucratic quagmire” faced by criminals trying to figure out if they have the right to vote.
Mead noted that his group has been working with state and local governments for years to develop a system to ensure voters’ right to vote.
“There can’t be safe and secure elections in Florida if the people don’t have clarity … and the state needs to take responsibility,” he said.
The lawsuit asks the judge to order the state to “create a robust statewide database that will enable people with prior criminal convictions” to determine whether they have outstanding legal financial obligations or are eligible to vote.
The confusion stems from a 2019 law that DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed to amend the constitution that said the right to vote would be reinstated “after serving all of their sentences, including parole or probation.”
The law required criminals to pay “legal financial obligations” – fees, fines and other legal fees – associated with their conviction before they could have the right to vote.
The lawsuit accused state and local officials of frustrating the so-called Amendment 4, which was supported by 65% of Florida voters.
“Defendants used the legislative process, criminal enforcement, and taxpayer money to prevent the will of Florida voters, expressed in their overwhelming support for Amendment 4, to return voting rights to more than 1.4 million Florida citizens,” the suit, filed in the federal Southern District of Florida, says.
The defendants include DeSantis, Secretary of State Cord Byrd, election observers, county court clerks, members of the State Crime Commission, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass, and Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon.
Criminals trying to determine if they qualify for assistance often have to resort to a clever system of combing court records to see if they have outstanding fees and fines. There is no single repository in the state where such information can be found.
The State Elections Division, run by Byrd, evaluates voter registration applications to determine their eligibility. District election observers are responsible for delisting ineligible voters.
But the lawsuit argued that the lack of uniformity in how the state’s 67 counties determine eligibility makes the process unconstitutional. For example, according to the lawsuit, county clerks differ in how they calculate what costs constitute “legal financial obligations.”
“Defendants have created and encouraged a chaotic and broken system that is incapable of collecting and evaluating the necessary information, especially data related to LFOs (Legal Financial Obligations), to determine the voting rights of people with prior criminal convictions,” plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.
The lawsuit alleges that the creation last year of the state Office of Crime and Electoral Security, referred to by critics as “electoral police,” exacerbated the problem.
DeSantis last August announced the arrest of 20 people for illegal voting in what he called the “initial salvo” of the office, which opened in July 2022. Many of those arrested claimed they were convicted felons who believed they were eligible to vote, and election officials provided voter registration cards.
The lawsuit pointed to a process used by Alabama that issues a “voter information card” after the Bureau of Parole and Pardon determines a convicted felon’s eligibility.
“If Alabama can create a process to verify the eligibility of its constituents, Florida can do it,” the lawsuit says.