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Restoring felon voting rights ‘a mess’ in battleground Florida

Tyson, 63, owes court-ordered fines and fees for three felony convictions, one for robbery, two for theft, all decades old.

Under a Florida law that went into effect July 1, he must pay those penalties before casting a ballot or risk being prosecuted for voter fraud.

Tyson searched court records, first on his own, then with the help of a nonprofit legal advocacy group.

They say that because Florida has no system for tracking such fines, the documents don’t make clear what he owes.

The records, viewed by Reuters, show potential sums ranging from $846 to a couple thousand dollars related to crimes committed in the late 1970s and 1990s.

Tyson says he won’t risk voting until Florida authorities can tell him for sure.

“Until there is clarity, as much as I want to vote, I won’t do it,” Tyson said.

The Tampa pastor is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the payments law, which was crafted by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, also a Republican.

The law came just months after Floridians approved a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to more than 1 million felons who have completed their sentences; that change to the state’s Constitution created a potentially huge new crop of voters in a critical battleground state ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The lawsuit, filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, alleges the fees requirement defies the will of Florida voters and amounts to an illegal poll tax on newly enfranchised Florida felons, many of them minorities.

But another argument is shaping up to be central to the plaintiffs’ case: Florida has no consolidated system for determining what felons owe or certifying that they have paid up.

It’s a situation that ex-offenders say makes it virtually impossible for them to prove they are eligible to vote.

Those claims are bolstered by state election officials who say they can’t calculate what felons owe, either, according to a Reuters review of depositions, emails and other internal correspondence from voting administrators submitted by plaintiffs’ attorneys as part of the lawsuit.

Florida has no comprehensive, centralized database where records of court-ordered fines and fees – and any payments of those penalties – are stored, election and court officials say.

To get that information, felons typically must search documents in courts where they were convicted, be they federal or state, inside or outside Florida. Records have been found to be incomplete, contradictory or missing, plaintiffs’ attorneys say.

With the Feb. 18 deadline to register for the state’s 2020 presidential primary approaching, the issue is taking on urgency.

An estimated 436,000 felons have fees to settle before they can vote, according to a study by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, an expert witness for the ACLU.

The stakes are high. Florida commands 29 of the 538 electoral votes that are used under the U.S. Electoral College system to select the American president.

In Florida and most other states, the candidate who places first in the popular vote – even if just by a hair – wins all the electoral votes. Florida has a history of tight elections and contested outcomes.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys say Florida has shifted all responsibility for compliance with the new payments law to ex-offenders, who risk prosecution if they get it wrong.

Some backers of the payments law say the responsibility should be on ex-offenders, not the state, to figure out how to comply with SB7066 (SB 7066).

“If you’re going to register to vote and you’re a former felon, it’s worth double checking to make sure you took care of everything,” said J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party in central Florida.

A federal judge in the Northern District of Florida has set an Oct. 7 hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to throw out the fees requirement. A decision could come as early as this month.

(Production: Linda So)

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