Florida’s top election official is facing accusations of voter suppression after two last-minute moves critics say will lead to intimidation and confusion.
Alarm bells went off last week after the office of Florida’s secretary of state, Laurel Lee, abruptly notified election officials the state was beginning to flag voters for potential removal from the voter rolls if they owed money related to a felony conviction. In a second letter, the state offered an extremely restrictive view on how localities needed to operate ballot drop boxes, which voters are increasingly turning to this year amid United States Postal Service delays.
Both notices threaten confusion and chaos in one of the most important swing states in the 2020 election. Mail-in voting started weeks ago and in-person early voting started on Monday. Polls show an extremely tight race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in Florida, a state where elections are routinely decided by just thousands of votes.
‘This is just to create fearmongering’
In 2018, Florida voters repealed the state’s longstanding lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions, a move estimated to affect up to 1.4 million people. But Republicans in the state legislature quickly undercut the reform by passing a law in 2019 that requires people to repay all financial obligations associated with their sentence before they can vote again. Civil rights groups sued the state over the measure, saying it amounted to an unlawful tax on the right to vote. A federal appeals court upheld the law in September, saying Florida did not even have to tell people how much they owed before they could vote.
Florida does not have a centralized system for keeping track of how much people with felony convictions owe and it can be nearly impossible for even trained officials to figure it out. And under state law, no one can be removed ahead of the November election – state law gives local election officials seven days to notify a voter and then gives the voter 30 days to respond.
Still, critics are worried that voters with felony convictions could receive notices suggesting they are ineligible to vote, dissuading them from casting votes, even though they are legally entitled to do so.
“If you’re not able to put a system together to let people know what they owe, how can we even trust that you have any kind of legitimate system to determine whether people should be taken off of the roster,” said Desmond Meade, the executive director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), an advocacy group for people with felony convictions. He was concerned the state would wrongly flag people who were eligible to vote because they had been granted clemency, even though they still owed money to the state.
An estimated 774,000 people in Florida are ineligible to vote because they owe money as part of a felony conviction. FRRC estimates 67,000 people with felonies have registered since 2018, though it’s not clear how many have outstanding debts.
The secretary of state’s letter is a “ham-fisted attempt to intimidate voters and election officials”, said Ion Sancho, who retired in 2016 after serving as the supervisor of elections in Florida’s Leon county for 28 years.
“This is not something that can be timely accomplished before the election and again I think this is just to create fearmongering, putting fear in the hearts of those ex-felons who have been told they’re legally allowed to vote,” he said. “All of a sudden ‘what does this mean?’ They don’t know. They’re not lawyers.”
Lee is an appointee of Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor and a close Trump ally. Last week, Trump said he would blame DeSantis if he lost the state of Florida.
Lee’s letter is the latest move in a long fight over the voting rights of people with felony convictions. During a federal trial earlier this year, state officials testified they had received approximately 85,000 voter registrations from people with felony convictions and had yet to review a single one. In its ruling last month, the US court of appeals for the 11th circuit said all 85,000 people were entitled to vote until they were removed based on “credible and reliable” evidence.
Julie Ebenstein, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who helped represent the plaintiffs said the timing of the state’s email was “extremely suspect, to say the least”. She noted the law in question has been in effect since mid-2019, giving the state 16 months to figure out a system to deal with voters with outstanding debts. Beginning to notify people now, she said “can only intimidate people named, or sow confusion in the election results”.
It’s not clear whether local supervisors of elections have already started investigating people for potential removal. Paul Lux, the supervisor of elections in Okaloosa county in the Florida panhandle, said his office had not yet received any names for investigation under the new guidance. William Boyett, the chief deputy supervisor of elections in Alachua county, said his office receives the names of people with felony convictions from the state on an almost daily basis and assumed new matches included people flagged under the state’s newest guidance.
Mark Ard, a Lee spokesman, said the department was legally obligated to review the registrations under Florida law.
“If the department determines that the information is credible and reliable, the department shall notify the supervisor and provide a copy of the supporting documentation,” he said in a statement. “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.”
A day after Lee’s office sent the notice about identifying potentially ineligible voters, it sent a second notice to the local officials outlining restrictions on how counties were supposed to be operating drop boxes, where people can drop off sealed ballots in person.
The letter said that mail-drop boxes must be staffed at all times by an elections employee or sworn law enforcement official, complicating plans for localities that planned to offer 24-hour drop boxes and use video surveillance to monitor them, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Fifty of the state’s 67 counties plan to offer drop boxes, the Times reported, though it is not clear how they plan to secure them.
The state’s guidance came after millions of mail-in votes had already been cast in the state. Republicans in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania have all moved to limit drop boxes as record numbers of Americans are expected to cast their ballots by mail.
Florida law requires election officials to offer drop boxes at their main election and branch offices as well as at early voting sites, but just says they need to be “secure”. But Ronald Lubasky, an attorney representing local election officials, wrote in an email to them last week that state law did not define the word “secure”. The supervisors of elections, he wrote in a letter to the officials last week, have the discretion to determine what that means.
“Drop boxes that are at the main office, a branch office, or early voting site are required to be secure, but I don’t see that there is any staffing requirement or hours of operation related to those drop boxes,” he said.
He added that because the letter was an advisory, the local supervisor of elections – an elected official in Florida – was free to ignore it. After the letter, some county election officials told the Tampa Bay Times they would hire security to monitor the drop boxes, while others said they would not alter their plans.
Sancho, the former election official, said Florida Republicans were obviously concerned about providing too much accessibility for people to cast a ballot. “It’s just a sad effort to try to confuse the issues and we don’t need any more confusion,” he said. “They had to come up with some way to limit what they had previously provided, which is accessible vote-by-mail drop boxes.
“This is the political decision they came up with, again trying to limit access to the ballot box. Unconscionable action in my opinion.”