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Judge rejects a Florida lawsuit regarding felon voting rights

VOTE HERE SIGN placed on the walkway to a neighborhood polling place, as seen on election day in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
JillianCain/Getty Images
VOTE HERE SIGN placed on the walkway to a neighborhood polling place, as seen on election day in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The lawsuit was filed in April by the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP against Secretary of State Cord Byrd.

A U.S. district judge Monday rejected a lawsuit alleging that a Florida voter-registration form violates federal law because it does not properly inform convicted felons about eligibility to vote.

Judge Allen Winsor issued a 13-page decision dismissing a lawsuit filed in April by the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP against Secretary of State Cord Byrd.

The case stemmed, in part, from a 2018 constitutional amendment designed to restore the voting rights of felons who had completed their sentences. The plaintiffs argued that the state voter-registration form violates a federal law known as the National Voter Registration Act because it does not properly inform potential voters of eligibility requirements. That has resulted in high-profile arrests of felons who thought they had regained voting rights, according to attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

But Winsor ruled that the form accurately informs felons that they cannot register to vote until their rights are restored and rejected arguments that it should provide more-detailed information.

“The restoration of rights remains the eligibility requirement for felons,” Winsor wrote. “And that requirement, as plaintiffs acknowledge, is included on the form they challenge. That is enough to doom plaintiffs’ challenge.”

Winsor added that “if the NVRA (National Voter Registration Act) required applications to catalog every potential ‘precondition to eligibility,’ Florida’s one-page, front-and-back application form would explode into something hopelessly cumbersome, counter to the NVRA’s goal of promoting convenient registration.”

After voters passed the 2018 constitutional amendment, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019 approved a controversial law to carry out the measure. That law included requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations,” such as restitution, fines and fees, to be eligible to have voting rights restored.

Critics contended that the requirement put up a barrier to restoration of rights and caused confusion about whether many “returning citizens” were eligible to vote. Also, the amendment barred rights restoration for people convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.

The lawsuit sought to require the state to use a voter-registration application that informs people convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses that they cannot vote unless their rights are restored through the clemency process; informs other felons that they are eligible to vote if they have completed all terms of their sentences, including financial obligations; and informs people convicted of felonies in other states about their eligibility to vote in Florida.

“Florida’s eligibility requirements for returning citizens differ depending on the crime, terms of sentence, and state of conviction,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in a June 1 court document. “But the application says nothing about these requirements. Making matters worse, Florida agencies have proven unable to timely verify the eligibility of voters. The application exacerbates the widespread confusion about eligibility criteria under Florida’s convoluted regime for applicants with prior felony convictions. Florida has chosen to withhold the information that its citizens need to determine their eligibility, and it has exploited this state-created uncertainty by investigating and prosecuting individuals who believed in good faith in their eligibility to vote.”

But in a motion to dismiss the case, attorneys for Byrd said the federal law “does not require a detailed explanation of every eligibility requirement on the face of a mail voter registration form.”

“For the vast majority of prospective Florida voters, the application provides all the information they need to successfully register,” the motion said. “For those who require more detailed information to assess their eligibility, Florida’s application provides a link to the Division of Elections website. It is highly unlikely that providing the detailed legal explanations that plaintiffs demand on the face of the application will enhance convenience for any Florida voters, including for persons previously convicted of felonies.”

While Winsor granted the state’s motion to dismiss the case Monday, he said the plaintiffs could file a revised version.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.