Fla. election supervisors find themselves in gray zone as voting rights return to felons

Posted at 8:33 AM, Jul 10, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida's county election supervisors are finding themselves in something of a bureaucratic quagmire. Now that some of the state's felons can vote, who’s checking to make sure they’re eligible?

Last session lawmakers put restrictions on Amendment 4. Felons without murder or sex crime convictions, who’ve served their time, can vote — but only if they’ve paid fines, fees and restitution first.

That puts county election supervisors like Mark Earley, representing Leon County, in a gray zone. Before Amendment 4, all he had to do was check a clemency list to see a person was eligible.

Now, he might have to track down the records to find if a felon is paid up. Which could mean dedicating staff resources he doesn’t think he has.

“The statute really requires the Division of Elections to do the majority of the heavy lifting," Earley said. "But, frankly, they don’t have the staffing resources or central location to gather this data.”

It’s difficult because there’s no state database with all of the relevant information. The finance info can be spread out in different locations and with different departments.

“It could be spread around any of the 67 Clerk of Court offices, the Department of Corrections," Earley said. "Potentially out of state."

Even then, it’s often not as simple as looking at a computer screen. Ken Kent with the Leon County Clerk of Court says older convictions are typically paper files that haven't been digitized. If they happened outside of the last five years, the court staff has to go searching for them, ten miles away in a warehouse.

“No, it would not be something that would be done in a few minutes,” Kent said.

The clerk’s office has tried to be proactive with the issue, putting what felony files it can online for voters to check themselves.

Meanwhile, back at the elections office, Earley is hoping a new state voting commission, set to start next month, will provide some guidance as the 2020 primary creeps closer. Until he gets clarification, Earley felt stuck in a holding pattern.

The ACLU and others have filed suit against Amendment 4’s payment requirements calling them an unconstitutional poll tax. They estimate it will keep around 500,000 Floridians from voting.

Florida’s primary is set for next March.