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Documents: Top Florida Officials 'Don't Know' How To Verify Felon Voting Eligibility

Newly filed court records are shedding light on the closely watched federal court case relating to voting rights for people with felony convictions. Several groups filed lawsuits against state and local officials after Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law tying the right to vote to paying all the fines and fees related to a felony conviction.

The law was passed in the wake of voters overwhelmingly approving Amendment 4 last November, which automatically restored voting rights for most people with felony convictions after they “complete all terms of their sentence.”

In a sworn deposition, one of Florida’s top voter registration officials repeatedly found herself unable to answer questions about who is legally eligible to vote, signaling ongoing confusion in the state agency tasked with making those determinations.

Toshia Brown, the chief of Voter Registration Services at the Secretary of State’s office, acknowledged that since the passage of SB 7066, the state has been relying on information from the Department of Corrections that “may not be reflective or up to date,” in determining who is eligible to vote or not.

Brown also acknowledged that it was unclear how someone with a felony conviction might be able to verify if they still owe money in fines and fees related to their case. Shown a sentencing document for a felony case, she was unable to say which fines and fees had to be paid by an offender before they could register to vote. She was then asked how someone with a felony conviction might be able to verify this on their own.

“I don’t know how they would be able to get that information,” said Brown. “I don't know where you go, a one-stop shop, to get something that says you've paid all your fines and fees.”

Section of deposition with Toshia Brown, the chief of Voter Registration Services at the Secretary of States office.
Section of deposition with Toshia Brown, the chief of Voter Registration Services at the Secretary of States office.

The deposition underscores issues that activists have been sounding alarms about since SB 7066 was being debated in the legislature earlier this year. The state has a decentralized system of records, in which 67 county Clerks of Courts, the state Department of Corrections, the Florida Office of Executive Clemency and other agencies hold disparate pieces of the puzzle.

For instance, some clerks of courts offices send off unpaid fines and fees to collection agencies and no longer track them. Other fines and fees get converted to civil liens without a note being made about this on the sentencing document. And some counties continue to track money owed from felony cases decades ago, while others do not.

An analysis by WLRN cited in the lawsuit found that hundreds of millions of dollars in fines related to felony cases are owed since 2013 alone. That analysis did not include money owed in fees.

Plaintiff Betty Riddle has felony convictions going back to 1975 in different jurisdictions, and she has been unable to find out what, if any money, she owes for those older cases.

“It's just crazy that they would go to that length to stop us from voting,” she told WLRN before the suit was filed, referring to the passage of SB 7066.

County Supervisors of Elections, several of whom are defendants in the case, also expressed that it is unclear how to determine whether someone is eligible to vote or not in the wake of SB 7066. However, they stressed that the ultimate authority in determining who is able to vote or not rests with the Florida Secretary of State’s office.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said the current process can be confusing to someone with a felony conviction who wants to vote.

“If you are absolutely intent on following the word of law, which people who are registering to vote need to be doing, that needs to be their modis of moving forward, they, I guess, should endeavor to try and determine [if they are eligible], but it's going to be a tough thing for them to do,” said Earley in a deposition.

Asked what someone should do if they can’t figure it out on their own, Earley offered words of advice: “Get a good lawyer.”

Checking one of the three boxes on voter registration forms that say you do not have a felony conviction -- or if you do, that your voting rights have been restored -- could face criminal charges.

Brown, with the Secretary of State’s office, said that if there is confusion, someone should not fill out the form.

“You are affirming that you know that you are eligible,” said Brown, “so I would not register to vote.”

The first hearing for the case is taking place on October 7 in Tallahassee. In it, plaintiffs will be asking Northern District of Florida Judge Robert Hinkle to temporarily block SB 7066 from going into effect.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.