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Published — October 1, 2020

In Florida, voting rights restored, then snatched back

The big question is who gets to vote this year. But disasters, and not just COVID-19, add more wrenches in the works.

Introduction

As Floridians try to figure out how to safely vote this fall, one substantial group of would-be voters is largely blocked from the ballot box. And hurricanes have added another complication in a year overshadowed by a different disaster, the coronavirus.

Here’s a look at some of the most significant updates on restrictions to voting rights and access in the state:

Disenfranchised again

In 1868, as white Florida officials were trying to reassert power following the Civil War, they stripped the right to vote from people with felony convictions. It was described at the time as a potent way to disenfranchise Black residents, given the state’s expansive efforts to arrest them, according to the Brennan Center for Justice

Fast forward to a few years ago: Nearly 1.5 million Floridians with completed sentences were disenfranchised, far more than in any other state, and representing about one in five Black residents, according to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project. In 2018, voters approved a ballot measure, Amendment 4, that reinstated those rights for everyone — other than people convicted of murder or sex offenses — once sentences are completed.

But last year, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill that said sentences weren’t truly complete until any court fees, fines or restitution was paid. (By contrast, Iowa recently reinstated voting rights without requiring those payments first.) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, calling voters’ approval of the 2018 amendment a “mistake,” signed the bill.

Voting-rights advocates decried the new law as a modern-day poll tax that many would not be able to pay. A federal judge said the state, in 18 months, hadn’t finished reviewing even one of the roughly 85,000 pending registrations by people with felony convictions to determine whether they could vote or how much they owe.

Given how the information is stored and how old some of it is, “this whole question of who owes what is unanswerable in many cases,” said Liza McClenaghan, state chair for Common Cause Florida.

Despite that, an appeals court reversed an earlier decision that would have defanged the law. Those who hadn’t already registered are out of luck unless they can find out how much they still need to pay and cover the tab, said Daniel Tilley, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The 85,000 who did fill out registrations can vote, according to the court ruling, until the state offers credible information about financial obligations. Tilley said he hopes prosecutors respect that ruling, but he said each person will have to decide whether they’re comfortable casting a ballot under these conditions.

This is now a pitched battle over who gets to vote in a key swing state. Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a vocal critic of President Donald Trump, recently raised $16 million for a fund that’s paying off what people owe so they can register by the Oct. 5 deadline. Florida’s attorney general, a Republican, swiftly pressed the FBI to investigate that.

“Florida is very committed to ensuring that as few people as possible can benefit from Amendment 4,” Tilley said.

Disasters 

Florida Panhandle communities devastated by Hurricane Michael in 2018 don’t have enough public buildings to maintain their usual precinct locations, leading to a reduction in polling places. DeSantis allowed two counties in its path to extend early voting so people have more time to get to one of the available sites.

Hurricane Sally, which brought catastrophic flooding to the Panhandle in mid-September, represents an additional challenge.

Ballot deadlines 

Florida isn’t sending mail-in ballots to all its registered voters (like some states) or applications for those ballots (like some others). But it does allow any voter to get a mail-in ballot without requiring an excuse, such as age or disability. 

However, any ballot that arrives after 7 p.m. Election Day won’t be counted, even if it was postmarked before. Given U.S. Postal Service slowdowns, some residents relying on the mail could find their vote invalidated. In April, and again in early September, voting-rights groups asked DeSantis to allow ballots to be counted as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day and arrive soon afterward. 

He has not responded to their request, McClenaghan said. The governor’s office did not provide a comment on the matter.

Drop boxes 

There is some good news for voters concerned that showing up at the polls could be dangerous and mailing their ballot could get it tossed out. Florida mandated ballot drop boxes last year.

“But it’s the implementation and access to those drop boxes that become the question,” McClenaghan said. “The lines for our primary in August were cars in line to drop off their ballots on election night.”

Among the challenges, she said: Figuring out where drop boxes are and which ones are available round the clock, as opposed to only when staff are present. She recommends voters check with their local Supervisor of Elections office.

“It’s a new thing,” she said, “so everybody’s learning.”

Read more in Money and Democracy

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