Editorial Roundup: Florida

Miami Herald. November 7, 2022.

Editorial: DeSantis’ crackdown on voter fraud is all ‘gotcha!’ and no real solutions

How did the state of Florida allow 20 felons to get voter-registration cards if they were clearly ineligible to get their rights restored?

That his own administration failed to flag ineligible voters doesn’t seem to faze Gov. Ron DeSantis. He has made a spectacle of the 20 voter-fraud arrests he announced with fanfare during a news conference in August. The arrested told the Miami Herald they applied for and received voter cards from their local supervisor of elections office. In other words, they didn’t know they couldn’t vote, and the officials who were supposed to stop them didn’t.

Moving forward, the DeSantis administration has a solution for that, but it doesn’t involve fixing this broken system.

Eight days after the governor’s news conference in August, the Florida Department of Corrections quietly updated the form Floridians on probation are supposed to sign. Now, they must acknowledge that it’s up to them to determine if they are eligible to vote, the Herald has reported. Essentially, the form now shifts the burden to returning citizens, who usually have low literacy levels. This lets the state off the hook.

The new form states people can find “helpful information at the Florida Department of State’s website.” But it doesn’t mention consulting with county elections supervisors about eligibility or that people can seek an advisory opinion on their voting status from the secretary of state, who oversees elections.

There’s nothing wrong with giving information to people about their rights and responsibilities. It might be helpful for ex-felons to read the warning so they don’t find themselves caught in the next voter-fraud investigation by the newly created Office of Election Crimes and Security.

But as Alex Saiz, a lawyer for the Florida Justice Center, told the Herald, these forms could be used as evidence to show future actions by released inmates were “willful.” That’s the key to DeSantis’ efforts. To properly prosecute people for casting illegal ballots, the state must prove they knew they were committing a crime.

It’s the perfect setup:

Florida lets ex-felons still unaware they can’t vote register to vote.

Supervisors of elections let them cast ballots.

DeSantis’ elections police arrest them.

DeSantis takes credit for combating voter fraud.

Felons be warned: You vote at your own peril. If this works in keeping people from voting, it essentially annuls the intent of voters who restored voting rights for some felons in 2018 through a constitutional amendment. It’s voter intimidation disguised as bureaucracy.

It should have been easy for the state to determine those 20 felons shouldn’t be on the voter rolls. As the Herald previously reported, all of them have sex offenses or murder charges on their records. Amendment 4 was explicit in excluding those charged with these serious offenses from getting their voting rights restored.

Yet they were given voter ID cards after initial checks by the Department of State. A state truly interested in rooting out voter fraud would focus on why that happened.

Republican lawmakers spent taxpayer dollars to create the Office of Election Crimes and Security this year. Instead of focusing on big schemes like the ghost candidates funded by big political players to sway elections away from Democrats, DeSantis’ elections police go for the low-hanging fruit: former inmates who get little sympathy from the public.

Republicans themselves made it very hard — an “administrative nightmare,” as a federal judge put it — for state experts to determine whether a felon can have his or her voting rights restored. Not happy that Florida voters approved Amendment 4, lawmakers set out to muddy the waters. The ballot language stated that felons would be eligible to vote once “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation” were satisfied. Thanks to additional requirements imposed by lawmakers, the state now has to also check if a felon still owes criminal fines, court fees or restitution to victims.

Although the number of registered voters in Florida grew by 50% since 2005, staff numbers at the Florida Department of State’s Division of Elections have remained roughly the same, the Herald reported. The department director testified in a federal case in 2020 that her office had a backlog of 85,000 registration applications that had been flagged, and her team of 20 could process only 57 a day.

The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature this year allocated $1 million to hire 15 new employees at the department. That’s good, but it’s a drop in the bucket. At DeSantis’ request, lawmakers also set aside more than twice that amount to hire 25 people, including law enforcement officers, for the Office of Election Crimes and Security.

Hiring more civil servants to do the un-glamorous work of checking voter applications doesn’t make for good political rallies. Arresting felons for alleged voter fraud when millions of people believe the 2020 elections were stolen, on the other hand, makes DeSantis — by design, of course — look like a hero.

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Tampa Bay Times. November 3, 2022.

Editorial: Florida’s felon voting rights trap

Fix it, or Floridians should amend constitution again.

Florida voters amended the state Constitution in 2018 to make it easier for ex-felons to vote, a promise the state’s Republican leadership has blocked at every turn. Nobody should doubt that this disenfranchisement will continue, so the question becomes: What will Floridians do to make this constitutional guarantee finally become a reality?

The folly of expecting Gov. Ron DeSantis to do the right thing was highlighted again by a Tampa Bay Times report that exposed a new front in the weaponization of felon voting rights. A week after DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 felons in August for alleged voter fraud, his administration quietly made a change that could help the state go after more people.

Starting in August, Floridians on probation have been required to sign an updated form placing the burden on them to determine if they’re eligible to vote. “By signing this letter,” the form states, “you agree that you are solely responsible for determining if you are legally able to register to vote and that you must solely determine if you are lawfully qualified to vote.”

Good luck with that. People with felony convictions who are on probation are not eligible to vote in Florida, anyway. Some people on probation without a felony record should be eligible to vote, but the form offers no guidance on determining one’s status, beyond consulting an attorney. Probationers are not instructed to consult with a county elections office or to seek an advisory opinion on their eligibility from the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections. And probation officers also “may not give advice on voting restoration,” the form states.

This is a new leaf on the entrapment tree that Republicans devised to frustrate or simply scare away felons from exercising their rights. Placing the burden on citizens — not the state — to determine voting status is asking the impossible. Florida has no centralized database to determine if felons have completed all terms of their sentences, including paying all fines, fees and restitution, before being allowed to register. That last requirement was adopted by the Legislature and signed into law by DeSantis in 2019, after Floridians adopted Amendment 4. If the government cannot determine a felon’s eligibility, how possibly could a felon do it themself?

Adding another row to the hedge maze by scaring people away is an effective voter suppression tactic. Two years after Amendment 4 was passed, only about 8% of Floridians with felony convictions had registered to vote, in part because the state acknowledged it was “struggling” to identify ineligible felons. Yet now a government that cannot process voter registrations on the front end wants to arrest ineligible voters on the back end. Each of those arrested in August had previously been convicted of murder or felony sex offenses, making them ineligible to vote in the first place — yet the department of state, which reports to DeSantis, allowed them on the rolls and to vote in 2020 anyway.

This harassment has nothing to do with election security. But if we pretend it does for a moment, wouldn’t a reliable process for vetting registrations serve the interests of election integrity and civil liberties alike? Florida needs to create a centralized database to determine if felons have fully completed their sentences. And in cases where court records are missing or destroyed, there should be a reasonable cutoff date for the presumption of eligibility to apply.

It’s important to remember what we’re talking about here. Nobody is seeking to give teaching licenses to sex offenders or gun permits to murderers. A voter ID card is a vehicle for acclimating felons back into society. Participating affirms the value of democratic institutions and self-worth, and it gives more skin in their community, state and country. If lawmakers continue to stall, Floridians should amend the constitution again to make the restoration process cleaner. Felons should have this right to vote upon being released from prison. Nothing about voting interferes with serving probation or paying financial penalties. Florida voters supported Amendment 4 because it was seen as liberating. It’s time to fulfill that promise.

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Sun Sentinel. November 7, 2022.

Editorial: Fix Florida’s broken voter verification system

As returned mail ballots poured into their offices two weeks ago, Florida election supervisors got something else in the mail: a letter from the notorious state Office of Election Crimes and Security in Tallahassee. The subject: “Felons,” it said.

The state called on supervisors to take “all of the necessary measures” to prevent certain ineligible people with felony convictions from voting, including those still on probation and not protected by Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to most ex-felons four years ago.

The letter said it was a follow-up to previous state shipments of documents questioning the eligibility of some voters and urged supervisors to begin the process of formally challenging those voters’ eligibility. It was signed by Scott Strauss, who became director of the security office following the death on Sept. 23 of former director Peter Antonacci.

Let us be clear: No ineligible voter should vote. But by waiting until two weeks before an election to act, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is sowing more confusion and uncertainty, on the heels of an elaborately staged and legally suspect roundup of voters, most of them Black, who were accused of voting illegally. As the letter noted, due process protections necessarily make challenging a voter’s eligibility complicated and time-consuming, as it should be.

This last-minute October surprise smacks of voter intimidation and is yet another glaring example of a broken voter verification system. A top priority for the Florida Legislature in 2023 should be passing a law and providing money for a central database to track the eligibility of each voter — not pressuring counties to remove voters from the rolls two weeks before an election.

The front end is ‘broken’

“The front end of the system is broken,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the Amendment 4 campaign. “This appears to be a last-minute effort to deal with voter verification, something that should have been done on the front end a long time ago.”

Voting rights groups have made public records requests for “challenge letters” in all 67 counties. They received more than 1,900 such letters from the first 12 counties that responded (Broward and Palm Beach were not among them).

The state elections office defended its action without addressing our question about the timing. “Whether the supervisors use the voter challenge provision is their prerogative,” the agency said in a statement. “The department cannot compel the supervisors to make voter challenges.”

Voters who are challenged should call the coalition at 877-MYVOTE-0, or the national election protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE.

Common Cause Florida said the state needs a verification system “instead of playing a game of ‘gotcha’ with the lives of vulnerable Floridians.”

We agree. A felon who still owes a fine or restitution from decades ago may not be aware of that, and navigating the maze of the justice system is a virtual impossibility. The Office of Election Crimes and Security increasingly looks like the Office of Voter Disenfranchisement.

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