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Election Proceeds Amid Amendment 4 Uncertainty

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

Florida voters have begun heading to the polls for the March 17 Presidential Preference Primary. This election and registration for the next one are proceeding under a cloud of uncertainty, amid litigation over restoration of voting rights for ex-felons.

“It started on Monday and we have had a good turnout so far,” said Santa Rosa Supervisor of Elections Tappie Villane about early voting, which is now ongoing at four locations in the county and via vote by mail.

As of mid-day Thursday, just over 7,700 votes, nearly 6%, had been counted.

Although, there’s no way to track, that number could include ex-felons who have returned to the voter rolls thanks to passage of constitutional Amendment 4.

Implementation of the law has been controversial. But, Villane says it’s had no real no impact on their daily operations. All voters and potential voters are getting the same treatment they always have.

“There has not been any effect on how we do business,” Villane proclaimed.

“If an individual comes in, fills out the voter registration form and marks the required boxes, signs it and dates it, we submit that to the state, so our process has not changed.”

“Once you’re registered to vote, you’re registered to vote, unless you remove yourself or we remove you,’ said Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford.

Generally, he says removal from the voter rolls, which returning citizens are now concerned about, is a process that can be appealed.

Reasons for removal from the voter rolls include death and declaration of mental incapacitation. Additionally, list maintenance data involving change of address and voter inactivity can trigger notice of removal. And, there’s one more thing that hasn’t changed.

“To be clear, we still are getting notifications of newly convicted citizens that are on the voter rolls and then that kick starts the statutory process for us to do notice and removal on those voters,” added Stafford.

Amendment 4 provides automatic restoration of voting rights to ex-felons who’ve completed their sentences. But many felt the language was too broad and needed clarification, particularly on the issue of payment of fines, fees and restitution.

SB 7066, passed and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, stipulates that completion of sentence means all time, parole and probation served, and payment-in-full of all outstanding financial obligations. Subsequently, a federal court ruled the state cannot deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable to pay.” The state is appealing.

For now, Stafford and his colleagues are in a “wait and see” posture when it comes to the determination of eligibility for those individuals who still owe money.

“The supervisors have not received any kind of clear guidance from the court or from the Division of Elections that says, ‘this is the absolute criteria that you shall use to make a determination on that,’” Stafford said. “We haven’t seen that yet.”

While the matter plays out in court - several questions remain about where individuals trying to determine the status of their fines, fees and restitution can get the definitive answer.

“As Judge Henkel noted in his decision, there’s not one single repository of information on have you paid your fines and fee and met restitution, etc.,” said Paul Lux, Supervisor of Elections in Okaloosa County.

“As we discovered throughout the lawmaking process, some of that is held by corrections, the clerk of court, parole/probation offices across the state, etc. So, there’s no one place a person can go to say am I eligible or am I not eligible.”

According to Lux, supervisor of elections offices are basically back where they were in January 2019 when Amendment 4 took effect.

“So, the best I can advise people is if you think you’re eligible, absolutely, register. Because until we have information to the contrary, you’re essentially eligible so far as we can tell,” Lux proclaimed.

Lux also points out that individuals who are incarcerated, but have not been convicted of a felony, can register to vote. Likewise, the supervisor of elections office will send ballots to eligible voters who’re in jail.

At this point, the impact of returning citizens on the electorate is unknown. But, in combination with population growth and enthusiasm in this presidential election year, record high voter registrations have been reported, locally. Escambia has topped 220,000 for the first time. Okaloosa is over 139,000 and Santa Rosa is approaching 138,000.

Early voting in the Presidential Primary has been underway since Monday in Santa Rosa County, and will begin Saturday in Escambia and Okaloosa.

No problems related to Amendment 4 are expected during this election, local elections officials, David Stafford, Tappie Villane, and Paul Lux - hope issues related to eligibility of returning citizens soon will be resolved.

“Uncertainty surrounding elections is never a good thing. We like things sort of neat and tidy. You know, this is the way things are done. Here’s a check list,” said Stafford.

“We want to make sure that each and every election goes as smoothly as possible,” added Villane.

“All of my fellow supervisors would love to have some much more clear guidelines done and in our hands before books close for the August Primary and certainly before they close for the November General Election.”

The deadline to register for the August Primary is July 20.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.