A roll of “I Voted!” stickers is seen Oct. 6 at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Doral, Fla. | Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
TALLAHASSEE — Florida will seek to push former felons from voter rolls if they have outstanding court debts, a surprise, late-hour move that comes after more than 2 million people already have voted in the presidential battleground.
The announcement, which was distributed to local election officials but not the wider public, drew immediate pushback from county election supervisors and suspicion from Democrats who say it could be used to challenge the eventual election results.
Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews, in an email to the state’s 67 local election supervisors late Tuesday, said they would “begin to see” files on registered voters “whose potential ineligibility is based on not having satisfied the legal financial obligations of their sentence.”
Unwritten in the email, which was obtained by POLITICO, was the assumption that local officials should start acting on any information they receive. The email also instructed supervisors to act on information from other sources, including court clerks, that raises eligibility questions.
The move is one of the state’s most consequential actions to meet the terms of a 2019 law on felon voting rights. Florida voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, a ballot measure that ended a lifetime voting ban for most felons. But state legislators the following year limited that right to those people who have paid any court-ordered fees, fines and restitution.
The action lands late in a presidential campaign cycle that has President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden scrambling for every ballot in Florida, where Trump won with fewer than 113,000 votes in 2016.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a Republican, released a written statement to POLITICO saying her office has a duty to enforce the 2019 law after it was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 6-4 decision last month.
“The law requires the department to review information from a number of sources and make an initial determination as to whether the information is credible and reliable,” she wrote. “With the 11th Circuit’s recent decision, the law with respect to legal financial obligations is now clear and there is no legal basis for the department to ignore the obligations spelled out in Florida Statutes.”
With less than three weeks until Election Day, millions of Floridians already have mailed or dropped off their ballots, and early voting sites are scheduled to open Monday.
Democratic attorney Mark Herron called the action “smelly” and said it could be used by the Trump campaign to challenge election results. A defeat in Florida could doom Trump’s reelection effort, and the president repeatedly has raised unsubstantiated allegations of potential fraud in this year’s election.
Biden campaign spokesperson Carlie Waibel blasted the state’s move.
“Plain and simple: this is voter suppression,” Waibel said in an email. “For the past two years, we’ve seen Florida Republicans do everything in their power to defy the will of the overwhelming majority of Florida voters who cast their ballot in favor of Amendment 4. And here they go again.”
Trump Victory spokesperson Emma Vaughn did not respond to questions about whether the campaign would seek to obtain the names of people flagged by the state, or contest the election results if any of them voted.
State rules leave it up to local election supervisors to add and remove voters from the rolls. But it’s the job of the state to review law enforcement and court records to see if a registered voter is ineligible. The state Division of Elections sends that information to supervisors, who must follow a process to remove the voter, including mailing a written notice.
Supervisors reached by POLITICO said that timeline makes it impossible for them to remove anyone from the rolls before the Nov. 3 election.
Brian Corley, the Republican supervisor for Pasco County, called the timing “problematic, especially during one of the most scrutinized elections ever.”
Corley said he has no idea how many voters the Division of Elections might send his way.
“Are we going to get these next week? Am I getting a hundred or a thousand?” Corley said. “It’s a little disappointing, as you might imagine.”
Florida voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to give felons a vote. In 2019, the Republican-led state Legislature passed a contentious law that requires felons to first pay off any court-ordered debts before registering. Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, signed the bill into law.
But even as the law was hit with a ferocious legal challenge, the DeSantis administration flagged no voters on the rolls who might be violating the requirements.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, a Democrat, said that it’s possible that someone flagged by state officials at this late date might already have voted.
“If someone has voted or voted before they are removed from the rolls, we cannot prevent that and those will votes will be counted,” Earley said.
The number of registered voters who owe court debts isn’t known, but a University of Florida study estimated that there could be nearly 775,000 felons in the state with unpaid debts. During a trial this spring over the felon voting law, Matthews, the state elections director, testified in federal court that some 85,000 voters on Florida’s rolls could be ineligible under the felon voting law.
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