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In last-minute push, DeSantis administration urges Florida election officials to remove felons who owe fines from voting rolls

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration delivered last-minute guidance to local election officials recommending measures that voting rights advocates say could intimidate or confuse voters, the latest salvo in a pitched battle over who is able to cast ballots in a state crucial to President Trump’s reelection.

In a notice sent to local election officials last week, Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews urged them to remove from the voter rolls people with felony convictions who still owe court fines and fees, a move that local officials said is impossible to accomplish before Election Day.

A second memo from Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee’s general counsel recommended that election staff or law enforcement guard all mail ballot drop boxes, a step that local election officials say is not required under the law.

Election officials said they do not have time or resources to implement either measure before the Nov. 3 election, and voting rights advocates cast the back-to-back missives as the latest effort by the Republican governor and Trump ally to impede access to the ballot box.

“They’re attempting to sow confusion,” Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters Florida said of the state’s instructions. She added: “The state of Florida doesn’t have a spotless record when it comes to making sure voters have easy access to the polls.”

The state issued the guidance a month after a federal appellate court upheld a GOP-backed law requiring people with felony convictions to pay fines before they can register to vote.

In a statement, Lee said her department has a “duty” to identify voters ineligible to vote and to provide local election officials with “credible and reliable” information regarding any court debts.

“The law with respect to legal financial obligations is now clear,” Lee said.

But there is no simple, streamlined process for formerly incarcerated people to figure out if they still owe fines. Some may be fearful to vote, unsure if they are breaking the law, advocates said.

In Florida, felons must pay court debts before they can vote. But with no system to do so, many have found it impossible.

Anton Marino, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the timing of the notice on felons “looks like an additional effort by the state to intimidate otherwise eligible voters.”

Lee’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the additional security recommended for drop boxes. Election officials said those boxes are already protected because they are located at government offices, early-voting sites or other public buildings monitored by staffers or surveilled with video cameras.

The state’s directives to election officials come after Republicans have succeeded in narrowing the Democratic lead in voter registration in Florida to its smallest size since the state began tracking partisan breakdown in 1972. The Democrats’ current 134,242-vote advantage is less than half of its cushion in 2016, when Trump carried the state by less than 113,000 votes.

One factor has been the muted impact of a constitutional amendment that Floridians overwhelmingly passed in 2018 that automatically restored the voting rights of people with felony convictions.

The move was heralded as the biggest expansion of the vote since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and supporters believed it could translate into roughly 1.4 million new voters in the state.

Instead, DeSantis signed a law passed by the Republican-led legislature that requires felons to pay all court fees and fines before registering to vote. Voting-rights activists sued, likening the law to an unconstitutional poll tax. But the measure was upheld last month by a panel that included five Trump-appointed judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. Two of those judges are former DeSantis appointees to the Florida Supreme Court.

After two years of conflict over the popular initiative, only 67,932 felons had registered to vote as of Sept. 30, according to leaders of the group that spearheaded the amendment, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, despite donations from former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg (D) and celebrities to help pay off the fines. The incremental growth is a fraction of what advocates envisioned for the nation’s biggest battleground state.

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

“Registering more than 1 million people is next to impossible unless you have a state working with you as a willing partner, and what we have seen over the last two years is that the state has been anything but,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

Election officials have frantically raced to prepare for the vote, despite the strains of the coronavirus pandemic on their workforce. One county in Florida’s Panhandle, Okaloosa, announced Sunday that Election Supervisor Paul Lux and an employee had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county is closing the main elections office, but four early-voting sites remained open.

Marion County Elections ­Supervisor Wesley Wilcox, ­president-elect of the statewide association of election officials, said it was unusual to receive guidance from the state last week, just a few days before early voting began.

The guidelines for election supervisors to begin purging ineligible felons from their voter rolls is the next step in implementing the law signed by DeSantis.

But such a review is impossible to accomplish in time for the election because state law gives election supervisors seven days to notify potentially ineligible voters, who then have 30 days to respond.

“It won’t impact us or voters who are currently listed as eligible in any way,” said Steven Vancore, a spokesman for the Broward County elections office. “To date we have no names, and once we receive them, state law requires us to notify those persons to ensure the records are correct.”

People ineligible to vote who cast ballots could be criminally prosecuted, said Ron Labasky, general counsel for the statewide association of election officials, though he said such cases are rare.

The other unexpected instructions from the state last week recommended that election staff or law enforcement guard drop boxes for mail ballots. Some election supervisors said they initially considered whether they were going to have to remove drop boxes if they could not staff them but concluded that the state’s recommendation was not mandatory.

“There’s a lot going on, and to suddenly have a new suggestion that ‘oh, by the way, you need to hire a bunch of people to sit by the boxes’ was not particularly well received, particularly because we don’t believe that the statute requires that,” Labasky said.

Mark Earley, supervisor of elections in Leon County, said of the state’s recommendation, “It caught people unawares and put some in a position where they couldn’t comply.”

Meanwhile, both parties are now racing to get their voters to the polls, with Republicans hoping to make the most of their gains in voter registration.

So far, Democrats are winning the battle for mail votes. As of Monday, returned Democratic ballots sent by mail outstripped those of Republicans, 1,291,463 to 808,962. Four years ago, Republicans led in mail voting before the election. In another sign of Democratic enthusiasm, the party’s voters have requested 320,446 more mail ballots than Republicans have.

Roughly the same number of registered Democrats and Republicans voted on the first day of early voting in Florida on Monday, according to statewide turnout numbers published Tuesday, bucking the trend so far in other battlegrounds where Democrats have logged a sizable early-voting advantage.

Roughly 366,436 voted in person across the state, exceeding the count four years ago, when about 290,000 cast ballots on the first day of in-person voting, according to the Florida Department of State. Of the total, 153,743 were registered Republicans, 154,004 were Democrats, and 58,689 were third-party or unaffiliated.

Slightly more Republicans than Democrats voted on Florida’s first day of in-person voting

Despite the pandemic, GOP activists aggressively pushed to sign up new voters in person in recent months, taking their cues from the president and other Republican leaders who encouraged businesses and schools to open and played down the risks of contracting the virus.

In contrast, Democrats pulled back on registering voters on street corners and canvassing neighborhoods.

Since mid-February, shortly before the first cases of coronavirus were detected in Florida, Republicans added 344,465 new voters, while Democrats added only 197,821, according to public records.

Republicans netted more than 100,000 voters statewide in just the last three months, said Democratic data consultant Matthew Isbell.

“Democrats were doing more digital- and phone-based campaigning and ceded the ground game to the Republicans,” Isbell said. “It speaks to a highly organized operation the Republicans have on the ground, which they are now going to be able to use toward getting people out on Election Day.”

Another reason for the uptick in GOP voter registration: the gradual erosion of traditional Democratic majorities in “Dixiecrat” counties that long favored national and statewide Republican candidates. In these mostly small, rural counties, Democrats have been switching parties after years of voting against their party’s presidential nominee, or they are being replaced by younger voters who are registering Republican. “Voter registration is catching up with voter behavior,” Isbell said.

The Trump campaign said it’s ready to parlay the GOP gains in voter registration into victory on Election Day. The Democratic head start in absentee voting suggests the party is “cannibalizing” turnout at the polls, said spokeswoman Danielle Alvarez.

“Our voters have been telling us they want to vote in person, and we can say ‘they’ because we know exactly where those voters are, and we have the ability to turn them out with a superior ground game,” she said.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign in Florida said the party’s “overwhelming vote-by-mail advantage” will overcome any surge in Republican voter registration.

“Democrats are leading in the metrics that will determine this election and returning their ballots at a higher rate than Republicans — and we aren’t letting up,” said Biden spokeswoman Carlie Waibel.

Democrats are now going door-to-door with a different task — helping voters whose mail-in ballots have been rejected for a mismatched or missing signature on the envelopes.

Parties can request lists of voters whose ballots are problematic. The Democratic Party has been using those lists to dispatch volunteers to help people fix their ballots.

“We get a daily update of which ballots have been rejected, and in coordination with the Biden campaign, working with phone calls and going door to door to these folks’ addresses with an affidavit, we try to get them to fix them,” said Steve Simeonidis, chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

He said the party has seen “significant numbers” of rejected ballots, and they’ve approached more than 100 people with affidavit forms to help them cure the ballots. Covid-19 precautions still apply, he said.

“All of our people are following protocols, ensuring they’re socially distant. They’ll knock on the door and stand back eight feet,” Simeonidis said. “Everyone’s wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.”

Rozsa reported from West Palm Beach, Fla. Amy Gardner contributed to this report.