TALLAHASSEE (CN) — One of Florida’s top elections officials faced hours of questioning Monday over a hastily cobbled policy to determine the voting eligibility of felons with outstanding fines, as the closely watched federal voting rights trial entered its second week.
Attorneys for 17 plaintiffs with felony convictions suggested Maria Matthews, director of Florida’s division of elections under the Secretary of State’s office, created a deeply flawed process to identify felons with outstanding legal financial obligations at the last minute to satisfy an October order from Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.
“We had grand expectations that we would move more quickly to develop the process,” Matthews said during cross-examination.
The trial, held via teleconferencing due to the coronavirus pandemic, revolves around SB 7066, a law passed last year to implement Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The amendment itself did not mention restitution or fines.
Last summer, the 17 felons sued Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and several supervisors of elections over SB 7066. The plaintiffs’ attorneys contend the law circumvents the ballot measure with onerous roadblocks that could prevent felons from ever exercising the right to vote. Attorneys for the state argue voters knew felons must pay all fines and fees before voting when they passed Amendment 4.
Florida does not have a statewide database for elections officials to check if felons paid all their fines and restitution, raising fears among criminal justice advocates that the state’s convoluted patchwork of record-keeping could prevent otherwise eligible felons from voting.
More than 774,000 felons have some type of legal financial obligation, according to a study submitted to the court.
During her testimony on Monday, Matthews referenced internal documents submitted by the state on April 17 that outlines the steps elections officials will follow to determine a felon voter’s eligibility.
Under the plan, voter registration records will be flagged if they match court records showing outstanding fines or restitution resulting from felony convictions. Staff in Matthew’s office will review the flagged records and send a file to the supervisor of elections office in the potential voter’s county. The supervisor of elections office will then send a letter to the potential voter, informing him or her of the outstanding fines and how to dispute ineligibility.
“People need to understand there will still be a process after registering to vote,” Matthews said, adding: “If we can’t figure it out, if there’s a difference of opinion, a gap, no documents, we will err on the side of the voter.”
Matthews also said her office will only look at restitution and fines ordered at the time of sentencing and not costs or interest assigned after that date.
In addition, she said, payments made to the court will reflect on the original amount owed at the time of sentencing and not actual outstanding balance.
In earlier hearings, attorneys for the secretary of state said election officials would look at the total amount owed at the time of voter registration.
The revelation prompted an interruption by Hinkle, who said the new policy “fundamentally changed this case.”
“At some point, I want to know who came up with this plan and when did they come up with it,” Hinkle said, implying the state’s attorneys should have disclosed the details earlier. “I have no problem if the state changed their position, but I want to know when.”
Hinkle noted part of the plaintiffs’ case relies on the imposition of court costs and fees levied after the sentencing that prevent a felon from voting. Such administrative fees could be considered a poll tax, which violates the 15th Amendment.
Matthews could not give the judge a definitive answer.
“We haven’t figured everything out yet,” she said. “I don’t want to establish a process that’s not fair and uniform and can be understood by everybody. And that’s what we’re struggling with here, while we’re having lots of people ask questions about it.”
During hours of cross-examination, plaintiff attorney Mark Gaber of Campaign Legal Center presented Matthews with various scenarios from the 17 plaintiffs that sought to poke holes in the new policy.
One of the plaintiffs, Luis Mendez, was convicted of felony robbery and driving under the influence, a misdemeanor, in 2005. The felony conviction did not carry a fine, but the court levied $1,000 in fines for the DUI. Mendez was deemed ineligible to vote for owing the fines for the misdemeanor offense.
This admission prompted another reaction from Hinkle, a Bill Clinton appointee.
“You have researched these 17 cases [of the plaintiffs] and when this came up nobody even checked up on it,” Hinkle told Matthews. “You missed it.”
Gaber also asked Matthews about how her office will determine if restitution is paid, since the money sometimes goes directly to the victim and not through the court.
Matthews said if the potential voter can find documents showing the restitution was paid, he or she can submit it to the supervisor of elections.
“It shifts the burden to the person, because we don’t have any evidence [it was paid],” she said.
Gaber also asked about orders that hold defendants jointly and severally liable for restitution.
“So, the right to vote is dependent on another person?” Gaber asked.
“I will not have enough paper to go over every possible scenario that will happen,” Matthews said. “This is a whole new area for us.”
Gaber and the judge also had pointed questions about how election officials can properly vet potential voters months before the August primary election and the November general election.
“If you have 500,000 people with [legal financial obligation] issues, are you going to have the resources to follow this protocol in a reasonable amount of time?” Hinkle asked Matthews.
“We are understaffed at this time,” she answered. “We work through the files the best we can.”
Matthews said her office’s 20 staffers go through 57 cases a day. At this point, the elections office only checks if the registered voters were convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. People with those type of convictions are not covered by Amendment 4 and cannot register to vote unless they receive full clemency from the governor.
Matthews estimated her office has a backlog of 85,000 cases to review.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Campaign Legal Center and other criminal justice groups brought the case, Jones v. DeSantis, on behalf of the plaintiffs last summer.
This past October, Hinkle issued an injunction blocking SB 7066 for the 17 plaintiffs in the case. In February, the 11th Circuit upheld the injunction and later denied the state’s request for an en banc rehearing.
Earlier this month, the judge approved a class action certification in the case and signaled his decision in the trial will apply to all affected felons in Florida, not just the 17 plaintiffs protected by the initial injunction.
The trial is expected to last until the middle of the week.