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As Florida Primary Approaches, Many With Felony Convictions Remain Unclear if They Can Vote

Advocates worry the widespread confusion may have a chilling effect on eligible voters.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow)

Edward Matson regained the right to vote in 2018, when two-thirds of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment re-enfranchising roughly 1.4 million people with felony convictions. But now he’s not sure if he’ll actually be able to cast a ballot.

More than 30 years ago, the Broward County resident spent five years in prison after he was convicted of drug smuggling. Through his legal process, he amassed $5,225 in court fines and fees.

Matson didn’t find out about his debt until this year, when unpaid fines and fees became the center of a contentious battle over the right to vote in Florida. In June 2019,  Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066, which requires people to pay off all court fines and fees associated with their sentences in order to be eligible to vote.

On the eve of the first federal election in Florida since the passage of Amendment 4, challenges to the law are still winding their way through the courts, and confusion about who can vote is widespread, criminal justice reform advocates say.

Matson said he has been talking to voting advocates who are trying to determine if they can help him become eligible to vote this year. 

“I’m waiting to hear,” the 59-year-old told The Appeal. “I heard they were changing the laws, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know how to go about taking care of this.” 

Matson says that if he could pay off the debt, he would. But he supports his children and grandchildren and has struggled to find and keep a job because of his felony record. 

“If I had it, believe me I would pay it,” he said, explaining that he wants to vote for President Trump in the general election. “That’s how bad I want to vote. I just don’t have it.” 

A study from last summer estimated that roughly 80 percent of people with felony convictions in Florida still owe fines and fees and were affected by the legislation. Most people owe between $500 and $5,000, and Black voters are more likely to have outstanding court debt, the study found. 

After the law was signed, several voting rights organizations filed suit, and that litigation continues. In February, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s preliminary injunction, finding that the state cannot prevent people from voting because of their inability to pay off their legal financial obligations, but the ruling only applied to the 17 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. For the hundreds of thousands of others in a similar position across Florida, their status remains unclear.

Those opinions articulate what we’ve said all along: that it’s unconstitutional to deny someone the right to vote simply because they have an inability to pay legal financial obligations,” said Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida. “You can’t say that someone’s too poor to vote. But the state is essentially saying to Floridians, we don’t have to obey this order for anyone except the 17 plaintiffs.”

Governor DeSantis’s office has appealed the decision to the full 11th Circuit. In April, a federal court will also begin a trial to determine if the injunction should apply more broadly. In the meantime, the state could argue that the hundreds of thousands of similarly situated people not named in the lawsuit are not yet eligible to register and vote. 

That leaves voters in the dark about their rights. 

“It is a setup that the state has deliberately designed to cause confusion,” Tilley said. “State officials are taking actions that they know will cause confusion and they intend those actions to cause people not to register.”

Voting advocates also worry that the lack of clarity could put voters at risk of prosecution for voter fraud. Though there is no recent precedent of that occurring in Florida, prosecutors have gone after other voters across the country, particularly African Americans, for voting when they were not eligible but were not aware of their crime. 

“I think that fear is something that certain state officials want to capitalize on,” Tilley said.

Gary Daughtry, a 66-year-old Florida resident who is also confused about his eligibility to vote because of a 10-year-old grand theft felony on his record and roughly $1,000 in unpaid debt, said that he’s thinking about the potential of being prosecuted as he weighs whether to vote this year. 

“You just can’t go down there and register with a felony,” he said. “I’m not going to put myself back in the same situation. I’m trying to correct the situation, not make it worse.” 

Several counties—Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Hillsborough—have created processes to help people modify their original sentences so that legal financial obligations no longer prevent someone from voting. While voting advocates said it’s great that some counties are doing what they can to restore rights, they noted that the right to vote shouldn’t be dependent on where someone lives. The different processes in different counties are also adding another layer of confusion for voters.  

Jonathan Diaz, a voting rights attorney with the Campaign Legal Center who is representing plaintiffs in the ongoing litigation, said he’s concerned that the state’s lack of clarity is going to have a chilling effect that will prevent eligible voters from exercising their right. 

“These are people who have, by definition, past experience with the criminal justice system,” he said. “I don’t think any of them are particularly eager to risk another felony conviction when the state is refusing to give the public guidance on who is eligible and who isn’t.”