Civil rights groups go to court to block implementation of controversial felon voting rights law

Voting booths in Leon County
Voting booths in Leon County. Mitch Perry/Florida Phoenix

Civil rights organizations filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in federal court on Friday to block the implementation of a voting rights law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis  —  limiting the number of felons who can automatically have their voting rights restored.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law earlier filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida to challenge the law. The groups are now pursuing a new motion to stop implementation of the law that became effective July 1.

The organization says the new law essentially undermines the intent of voters who passed Constitutional Amendment 4 to restore felon voting rights and prevents “hundreds of thousands of newly re-enfranchised voters from voting in Florida.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way: Amendment 4 was approved by more than 64 percent of Floridians last fall. The measure called for automatic restoration of voting rights for nearly all people who completed all terms of their sentences, including parole or probation. The exception was for people convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.

The law went into effect on January 8, and people with previous felony convictions were allowed to register to vote and began doing so.

However, the pool of citizens with felony convictions was reduced after Gov. DeSantis signed the law in late June, because the legislation approved by the Florida Legislature requires that former felons can only vote if they have paid all fines, fees and other monetary penalties associated with convictions.

The new legal filing includes a preliminary analysis of the legal financial obligations owed by citizens in 48 Florida counties, with data analyzed by University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith.

Using information from the Department of Corrections and the Offender Based Information System, Smith found “fewer than one in five—or just 66,108 of the 375,256 individuals with a felony conviction other than murder or a felony sexual offense who have been released from county or Florida Department of Corrections supervision—are likely to be eligible to register to vote.”

That means that across all 67 counties, the law would “effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who would have been eligible to vote in Florida under Amendment 4 had the legislature not stepped in to dismantle it,” according to a news release issued out by the ACLU.

The motion for a preliminary injunction also claims that a lack of a centralized database containing information on who is permitted to vote in Florida makes the state “wholly unprepared” to implement the law.

“This law has only been in effect for a month. Already it is confusing potential voters and election administrators. Supervisors of Election don’t know whether returning citizens are eligible to vote, and potential voters are being turned away. We’re asking the court to put an end to this chaos,” Sean Morales-Doyle, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said in a statement in the ACLU of Florida’s news release.

The motion was filed on the same day that Gov. DeSantis named two supervisors of election and two clerks of the court to be part of a “Restoration of Voting Rights Work Group” slated to oversee how the Florida Secretary of State’s office conducts the process of allowing people with felony convictions get their voting rights restored.

The group also will develop recommendations for the Legislature related to “consolidation of all relevant data” needed to implement the law and inform individuals regarding eligibility.

The motion for a preliminary injunction notes that while the law went into effect on July 1, it did so without the benefit of any guidance from this working group.

A judge has not yet ruled on the motion.

A copy of the motion can be found at: https://www.aclufl.org/sites/default/files/098-1_plaintiffs_motion_for_preliminary_injunction.pdf

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