TALLAHASSEE — In a dispute rooted in a 2018 constitutional amendment designed to restore voting rights for convicted felons, a judge Tuesday heard arguments in an attempt by the state to end a lawsuit that alleges a voter-registration form violates federal law.
Attorneys for Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd want U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor to dismiss a lawsuit filed in April by the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP.
The lawsuit contends that the state’s voter-registration form violates a federal law known as the National Voter Registration Act because it does not properly inform potential voters of eligibility requirements. That has resulted, in part, in high-profile arrests of felons who thought they had regained voting rights, according to attorneys representing the voting-rights groups.
By seeking changes in the voter-registration form, the plaintiffs are asking the state to “nip this problem in the bud,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, told Winsor during Tuesday’s hearing.
But Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for Byrd, argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed and that the state is complying with the federal law. He also contended that the voter-registration form would become unwieldy if it had to provide a wide range of information about restoration of voting rights.
“That level of specificity would require us to be here all day,“ Jazil said.
The case is part of the long-running fallout from the 2018 constitutional amendment, which sought to restore the voting rights of felons after they have completed terms of their sentences while excluding people convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.
The Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019 approved a controversial law to carry out the amendment. That law, in part, required felons to pay “legal financial obligations,” such as restitution, fines and fees, to be eligible to have voting rights restored.
Critics contended that the requirement put up a barrier to restoration of rights — what the lawsuit filed in April described as a “pay-to-vote system that effectively revoked the eligibility of nearly half of the intended beneficiaries” of the constitutional amendment.
The lawsuit contends that the voter-registration application adds to the problems because it does not properly provide information that people, often called “returning citizens,” need to determine if they are eligible to vote.
“Florida’s eligibility requirements for returning citizens differ depending on the crime, terms of sentence, and state of conviction,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in a June 1 response to the state’s motion to dismiss the case. “But the application says nothing about these requirements. Making matters worse, Florida agencies have proven unable to timely verify the eligibility of voters. The application exacerbates the widespread confusion about eligibility criteria under Florida’s convoluted regime for applicants with prior felony convictions. Florida has chosen to withhold the information that its citizens need to determine their eligibility, and it has exploited this state-created uncertainty by investigating and prosecuting individuals who believed in good faith in their eligibility to vote.”
But in the motion to dismiss the case, attorneys for Byrd said the National Voter Registration Act “does not require a detailed explanation of every eligibility requirement on the face of a mail voter registration form.”
“For the vast majority of prospective Florida voters, the application provides all the information they need to successfully register,” the motion said. “For those who require more detailed information to assess their eligibility, Florida’s application provides a link to the Division of Elections website. It is highly unlikely that providing the detailed legal explanations that plaintiffs demand on the face of the application will enhance convenience for any Florida voters, including for persons previously convicted of felonies.”
The lawsuit seeks to require the state to use a voter-registration application that informs people convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses that they cannot vote unless their rights are restored through the clemency process; informs other felons that they are eligible to vote if they have completed all terms of their sentences, including financial obligations; and informs people convicted of felonies in other states about their eligibility to vote in Florida.
Winsor did not say when he will rule on the state’s motion to dismiss the case.