The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most Florida felons kept from registering to vote by fines, fees or fears, activists say

The hurdle erected by Republican lawmakers proved consequential to this year’s massive re-enfranchisement effort.

Amid much celebration, Desmond Meade, right, and other released felons in Florida began registering to vote in January 2019. A state law later that year greatly affected the registration drive. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The deadline to register to vote in Florida for this year’s general election is midnight Monday, and what was expected to be the nation’s largest voter re-enfranchisement in more than 50 years instead resulted in less than a quarter of an estimated 1.4 million felons signing up to vote.

Voting rights activists here say they’ll keep working to register others in this group, but it won’t be in time for the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which Florida’s 29 electoral votes could be key to the outcome.

A constitutional amendment passed by two-thirds of Florida voters in 2018 quickly turned into a partisan battle in the Republican-led legislature over the issue of whether prison fines, fees and restitution must be paid before a felon can register to cast a ballot. A law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in June 2019 states that those payments are part of a sentence that the amendment requires an individual to first complete.

“I think we would be in a different world if [legislators] had not passed that undermining and repealing legislation,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

The payment stipulation caused confusion among many felons over whether they owe money to the state — and triggered fear that they could be committing another felony if they tried to register to vote.

“We had a year-and-a-half of confusion that just really muddied the water,” Kubic said. “We heard from thousands of people who don’t owe one thin dime, but they’re intimidated. We’re doing our best to tell them to not be afraid, but the governor and the legislature have a huge bullhorn that they’ve used for voter suppression.”

Kubic said an estimated 300,000 felons either didn’t owe fines and fees or had already paid them, but it’s unclear how many of them registered. In July, the state estimated about 85,000 felons had registered to vote.

The effort to allow former inmates who had completed their sentences to register to vote — with the exception of those convicted of homicide and felony sex crimes — attracted national attention as well as money. Groups such as LeBron James’s More Than a Vote and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg donated millions of dollars to help pay off some of the fines and fees. Bloomberg alone donated nearly $16 million last month.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which worked for years to put the amendment on the ballot, started a Fines and Fees Fund last year and raised $25 million. It offers pro bono attorneys to felons who need help figuring out whether they owe money to the state, how much and how to pay it. Florida has no system to enable felons to easily determine those answers.

The coalition said the average amount owed by felons is $1,000. Statewide, outstanding fines, fees and restitution total about $23 billion, according to the ACLU.

“We won’t stop until all 1.4 million returned citizens impacted by Amendment Four have had those barriers removed,” deputy director Neil Volz said while on the coalition’s statewide bus tour Monday with other volunteers helping on voter registration. “This fight is an important one, and it will continue beyond tomorrow and beyond the election and beyond next year.”

Nearly two years of lawsuits over the issue ended last month when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in favor of DeSantis. A lower court judge had said the requirement amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax, but the appellate court disagreed. Among the judges ruling 6-4 in the governor’s favor were Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, whom he had named to the Florida Supreme Court in January 2019. Nine months later, President Trump nominated both for the federal bench.

Lagoa, who recently was on the president’s shortlist for a U.S. Supreme Court nomination, concurred with the decision that found the DeSantis bill “a legitimate exercise of Florida’s power to set core voter qualifications.”

Trump won Florida in 2016 by about 1.3 percentage points, or fewer than 120,000 votes. About 28 percent of felons affected by the registration issue in Florida are Black, and expanding voting rights to historically disenfranchised people is usually thought to benefit Democrats.

“We know folks were enthusiastic. On the very first day they were able to register after the amendment passed, courthouses around the state were deluged with folks wanting to register,” Kubic said. “They want to vote.”