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As Florida Works to Restore Felons' Voting Rights, Confusion Clouds the Process

County elections supervisors from across Florida peppered state elections experts Tuesday during a conference in Sarasota about what steps local offices should be taking to comply with Amendment 4.

By Zac Anderson

Florida is on the precipice of a massive voter enfranchisement and there is considerable confusion among elections officials about how the process will unfold.

County elections supervisors from across Florida peppered state elections experts Tuesday during a conference in Sarasota about what steps local offices should be taking to comply with Amendment 4, the ballot initiative approved by voters this year that automatically restores voting rights for most felons who have completed their sentences.

"There's just a lot of things that have got to be looked at," said Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett.

Bennett requested Tuesday that Florida's 67 county elections offices be given written directives from the state on how to proceed under Amendment 4. He received a noncommittal response from state Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews, who took questions about Amendment 4 during a morning session as the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections conference.

Bennett and other elections supervisors expressed frustration with the lack of direction from the state.

Matthews did tell the supervisors gathered at The Westin Sarasota that the Division of Elections -- which reviews voters' criminal records -- is temporarily suspending the process of sending local elections offices those records.

"There's been a lot of questions about whether there needs to be more guidance from agencies or legislators or anyone ...; all I can say at this juncture is the state is putting a pause button" on the criminal reviews, Matthews said.

Division of Elections spokeswoman Sarah Revell said that "any valid felony matches that the department receives" will not be sent to local supervisors in the short term.

State officials are still trying to determine how the process for vetting voters' criminal records will work going forward now that only murder and felony sex crimes will disqualify felons from automatic rights restoration if they have completed their sentences.

Under current law, all Florida residents who have committed a felony lose their right to vote unless it is reinstated by the state's Clemency Board. But that changes when Amendment 4 takes effect on Jan. 8.

Supervisors seemed unclear about how they will transition to the new law, and some wondered whether the Legislature needs to provide guidance. State officials were vague in many of their responses to questions posed by supervisors.

Multiple supervisors expressed concern about removing voters from the rolls for old felony convictions if the rules are changing.

"Those that are on my desk that I'm working through I'm going to just not work," Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin said of the voters who have been flagged for removal from the rolls.

With the state pausing the flow of criminal records to supervisors, Griffin told Matthews that she feels justified pausing her own review process.

"If you can put a pause, I can put a pause," Griffin said during the session led by Matthews.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley then chimed in to say that "I'm very close to that position."

"It's incumbent upon us not to disenfranchise that voter until we iron that out," Earley said.

The question of whether the Legislature needs to weigh in on how the process will work after Jan. 8 also is a big topic of discussion. Amendment 4 advocates have said they do not believe there needs to be legislation to implement the ballot initiative.

Early said after the session that he agrees with that position.

"I think the comments that there is probably no legislation needed are correct," Earley said.

Some are concerned that the GOP-run Legislature could hamper the implementation of Amendment 4. Both House Speaker Jose Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano have said they don't plan to slow walk the amendment and will follow the will of the voters.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state's top elections official, said that he believes the Legislature should provide guidance on how to proceed with Amendment 4.

"I've always understood that the Legislature passes laws and passes laws to clarify where there's a necessity for definitions in constitutional amendments; we've seen it in other constitutional amendments," Detzner said, adding: "So I think the best thing to do ... let's pause, let's have a conversation with the Legislature and the Clemency Board and make sure that we get it right the first time."

But Cecile Scoon with the League of Women of Voters of Florida said the Amendment is straightforward and there is no need for the Legislature to provide further clarification.

"It would be an intrusion into the will of the people to enact any enacting legislation," said Scoon, the League's first vice president and the action team leader on the rights restoration campaign. "It deosn't require any and that would be challenged most likely, legally challenged."

Despite the concerns voiced by county elections officials Tuesday, former Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said he believes the amendment implementation "will work itself out."

"There's more questions, but I don't think the questions are indicative of problems," Sancho said. "We're process people. Elections officials are concerned about the process. It's important to us so we ask questions; we want to know. But on Jan. 8 individuals who have a felony and have repaid all of the things they need to, they're ready to register, and the supervisors are going to register them. They're not going to turn anybody away."

(c)2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

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