TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — New numbers raise questions over a controversial law, critics argue, was aimed at stopping ex-felons from exercising their right to vote.
Months after Florida election leaders announced they were taking steps to identify ex-felons who may be ineligible to vote because they still owed court debt, we’ve learned the Department of State, as of last week, has sent down “less than 100 files” of former felons who may still owe outstanding legal fees, according to a department spokesperson.
The Department sent the files to the County Supervisor of Elections offices who are tasked with determining if a former felon truly has any outstanding court fees. If they do, the new law forbids them from being eligible to vote until all fees, fines and restitution from their felony convictions are paid.
The measure, passed in 2019, was deemed unconstitutional but overturned by an appeals court this year. It sparked a number of debates and backlash from voting rights and constitutional rights advocates who believed the amendment was a way for the state’s GOP-led legislature to control who can cast their ballots in the historic swing state, despite voters approving a 2018 law that restored voting rights for ex-felons in the state.
Neel Sukhatme is a Georgetown University law professor and co-founder of freeourvote.com, a non-partisan, non-profit group created to help former felons find out if they owe any money from their sentences. We asked him to respond to the state’s shortlist of felons identified with outstanding debts.
“That’s a very, very small number of people and given the amount of energy and sort of political force given to this issue. It suggests that the state was making big deal out of nothing here. There’s a lot more smoke than there is actual fire here,” he said.
Florida doesn’t have a centralized tracking system for identifying former felons who owe court fees which makes it difficult for anyone, including the state, to figure out who owes how much.
Freeourvote.com helped more than 1000 ex-felons who owed less than $100 in legal fees pay off those fees prior to the 2020 election.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg also poured $16 million into paying off debt for ex-felons in Florida.
But Sukhatme doesn’t believe the state’s low numbers reflect a lack of ex-felons with outstanding debt. Instead, he believes it shows the tracking system doesn’t work and the law was created less for getting felons to pay off legal fees and more about political leaders securing their futures.
“It’s not really a legitimate intent to enforce the law, it’s an attempt to scare people. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in genuinely figuring this out because it’s complicated,” he said.
According to the voting rights advocacy group, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, of the estimated 1.4 million ex-felons in Florida, 87,000 or 6.2 percent registered to vote in the 2020 election. It remains unclear how many actually votes and which party they voted for.
“I’m shocked that the number is as low as 100. I would have thought it would be much higher than that,” said Republican Florida Senator Jeff Brandes of Pinellas County.
But he maintains the law is a work in progress. A spokesperson for the Department of State also said identifying ex-felons who may be ineligible to vote due to outstanding debt is a “continual process.”
“I just don’t know if they’ve accurately scrubbed the list and matched all of the voters that potentially have felony histories that have not completed all terms of their sentence with every single county’s record of outstanding fines and fees,” Brandes explained.
Brandes also acknowledged the system the state uses to identify individuals is made up of a patchwork of county and state systems. Brandes said it would take tens of millions of dollars and up to three years to centralize the tracking system into one statewide database. He believes the onus is on the ex-felon to determine if he/she owes any fines.
But critics say that is often a lot easier said than done since court systems operate differently across the state and payments can be time-consuming to find, especially if a case is decades old or if the former felon owes restitution.