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Florida lawmakers get guidance to improve felon voting eligibility

'This is a very challenging process for us'
Posted at 7:26 PM, Oct 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-30 19:26:43-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Former Florida felons may soon have an easier time figuring out if they can vote.

Wednesday afternoon, a state task force released 18 recommendations to lawmakers aimed at improving how the state determines if ex-inmates have paid everything owed. It comes after a new law tweaking Amendment 4, requiring inmates to pay all fees, fines and restitution before registering.

That information has been hard to find due to scattered or incomplete records.

The new recommendations include more bureaucrats, more work for Clerk of Court offices and centralizing data. The cost could be in the millions to institute.

“As of today — this is a very challenging process for us,” said Florida’s Secretary of State Laurel Lee. “What we have recommended is what appears to be necessary in order for Florida to comply with what was expressed by the voters in Amendment 4.”

A ruling by a federal judge could make those recommendations moot. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued an injunction suggesting Florida’s new law can’t keep felons from voting if they can’t pay what’s owed. Lee said she’ll wait for an outcome in the April lawsuit before acting.

“We’re still reviewing the potential impact of Judge Hinkle’s order,” she said. “We’ll await any further clarification from the court or the legislature.”

Civil rights groups and felon-advocates have applauded the ruling a major victory in the fight against financial obligations calling them a “poll tax.”

Greg James, a former felon turned Tallahassee pastor, felt Hinkle’s injunction was a godsend. Though it technically affects only the 17 individuals filing suit against the state’s new law, James said he was inspired to keep fighting.

“Even if you’ve got a fine — poor people matter,” James said. “That’s what the judge said.”

Fueled by that optimism, the ruling has put James on the road. He’s spent the last few days traveling the state to encourage other ex-inmates to register ahead of 2020.

“We have become the most valuable group in the state of Florida,” he said. “We got to fight. We got to register. We have got to make our voices heard.”

The class-action suit challenging the new voting law is set to begin in Florida’s Northern District in April. Based on the injunction ruling, some lawmakers are already considering tweaking the policy in the upcoming session.