Voting Rights Group Sues Florida Over Ambiguous Rights Restoration Process

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, July 19, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and four individuals with former felony convictions filed a federal lawsuit challenging Florida’s onerous and inconsistent system for voting rights restoration as well as the state’s “election police” unit, which arrests people with former felony convictions for accidentally voting when they were not eligible. 

The lawsuit, which was filed against numerous Florida officials including Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Secretary of State Cord Byrd (R), alleges that the defendants are violating both Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) as well as the First and 14th Amendments. 

The lawsuit notes that prior to 2018, Florida permanently disenfranchised individuals with former felony convictions. However, after the passage of Amendment 4 — which was overwhelmingly approved by over 65% of voters — individuals with former felony convictions could be re-enfranchised after the completion of their sentence, including parole and probation. Despite this voter-approved amendment, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature enacted a law, Senate Bill 7066, which hampered rights restoration under Amendment 4. In particular, the 2019 law requires individuals to pay all “fees and fines” related to one’s sentence in order to regain their voting rights as opposed to just completing their sentence. A consolidated lawsuit from 2019 challenging S.B. 7066 ultimately failed in federal court, meaning that the law’s “fees and fines” requirements remain on the books today.

The plaintiffs behind today’s lawsuit allege that “since the enactment of S.B. 7066, the Plaintiffs and other people with prior felony convictions across Florida have been unable to determine their eligibility to vote because of administrative failings within the state’s executive branch caused by the Defendants’ acts and omissions.” The plaintiffs further assert the defendants have failed to inform individuals of their status and voter eligibility, including whether they have paid all “fees and fines” as required by S.B. 7066. 

“The defendants have created and perpetuated barriers to the automatic restoration of voting rights pursuant to Amendment 4 by providing incomplete, inconsistent, and unreliable information, or refusing to provide any information at all, to citizens with prior felony convictions,” the complaint adds. 

In addition to the defendants’ misconduct regarding rights restoration, the plaintiffs challenge Senate Bill 524, a 2022 law that created an “Office of Election Crimes and Security” to “investigate and prosecute election-related crimes.” Given the insignificant number of election-related crimes committed in Florida, the plaintiffs assert that S.B. 524’s “election police” unit is unnecessary and primarily serves to intimidate individuals with prior felony convictions in order to stop them from registering to vote. The complaint specifically points to the Aug. 18, 2022 arrests of 20 individuals with former felony convictions, all of whom were charged with felonies for “illegally” voting in the 2020 election. Many of the arrested individuals claimed that they were told by officials they could vote and some saw the charges dropped

Ultimately, the lawsuit asks the court to declare the defendants’ implementation of Amendment 4 in violation of Section 11(b) of the VRA, which protects against voter intimidation, as well as the First and 14th Amendments. In addition, the plaintiffs ask that court require the defendants to create a centralized, statewide database for prospective voters to determine their eligibility. 

Read the complaint here.

Learn more about the case here.