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Voting Advocates Keep Registering Felons Despite New Restrictions

Poll workers in training at the Leon County Supervisor of Elections office, 2016.
Tori Whitley

Floridians approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most felons in November.  In May, Florida lawmakers passed a law requiring them to repay all financial penalties incurred at sentencing before they can register.

Big Bend Voting Rights Project Founder Bob Rackleff says the bill was unnecessary.

“They are deliberately restricting the right to vote for black citizens and white citizens who’ve been convicted of felonies with this new unnecessarily broad prohibition in the new law,” he said.

It certainly is not stopping Rackleff and other voting rights advocates from trying to help. Rackleff is leading a voter registration effort in Leon County and wants to register as many felons as possible. He says those who register to vote can’t be prosecuted for voter fraud if they believe they’re eligible.

“It’s simply that they have to willfully, a prosecutor has to convict somebody of willfully deliberately misrepresenting themselves and that’s simply not the case,” he said. 

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley says all eligibility will be determined county by county upon receiving evidence from the Florida Department of State.

“They would send the evidence to my office or another supervisor of elections office," he said. "Depending on which county it was,  those supervisors including myself would review the evidence, contact the voter and give the voter an opportunity--according to statute--an opportunity to present their side of the story... and then the determination would be made of whether that voter should still be on the voter registration rolls."

According to the Leon County Supervisor of Elections Office, felons are responsible for verifying their voting eligibility before they register. However, there is no statewide system that can help that process along, and no way to prevent a person from registering if they’re ineligible.

The League of Women’s Voters of Florida is also addressing the issue by training lawyers to assist felons that would like to have their voting rights restored. Barbra Licht, a seven-year volunteer with the League, says it will be difficult for average people to petition the court for themselves if they run into problems.

“They [lawyers] will be trained in the intricacies and possibly help them [voters] with petitions and going to court if they choose to do that. Now, I want to make it clear this is all very difficult, it isn’t going to be an easy fix, if the law goes into effect but it will provide help to hopefully a number of former Florida felons,” she said.

There is also no single database to assist the department of state in determining if all financial penalties have been paid.