Elections in Florida need to be fair to ex-cons, students, and be safe

When it comes to elections, Florida’s state lawmakers have three main responsibilities: make sure the voting is secure, accessible and fair. 

As we look toward the 2020 elections, and the legislative session that begins next month, Florida appears to be making decent progress on the first point. Not so much on the second two. 

We’ve seen signs that the state is working diligently to prevent security breaches that haunted recent elections. A brief word to lawmakers, however, this is no time to get cheap. If the governor needs money for election security, give it to him. 

Ex-felons loophole 

“It’s hard not to be cynical,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the Florida League of Women Voters. 

It’s hard not to be baffled if you’re an ex-felon. 

It’s been 13 months since Floridians overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4, which restored many ex-felons’ voting rights. The amendment said felons must complete “all terms of service.” 

That was needlessly ambiguous, but most of the 5.1 million people who voted for the amendment very likely understood it to mean “completed their jail sentences and probation.”

Republican lawmakers, never keen on the idea of adding 1.4 million Democratic-leaning voters, understood it to mean, “Hey, look, a loophole!” 

Challenges filed 

They said ex-felons must pay all court fees, fines and other financial obligations before they can vote. Those stipulations became part of the sweeping election law Gov. Ron DeSantis signed earlier this year. 

Voting rights groups filed legal challenges, and U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled for the ex-felons in a preliminary injunction. Legislators said they’d adjust the bill, but those tweaks are unlikely to change the restitution requirements. 

“I don’t think it will be wholly different than our current position,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes (RTampa). 

Can’t run out clock

That assures the dispute will linger beyond the March primaries. With appeals, it may not be resolved before the November general election. 

If it’s still in legal limbo then, what happens? 

“We will follow the law,” said Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Chris Anderson. “Whatever the law is at that time.” 

What if courts eventually rule in the state’s favor, but felons can vote while the case is under appeal? Talk about a fiasco. 

Adding to the confusion: Florida provided no database for exfelons to determine if they’ve paid all financial obligations.

And in the latest twist, the governor’s office claimed in a Dec. 3 hearing that if Hinkle’s injunction orders are upheld, it would void Amendment 4 in its entirety. That prompted a lecture from Hinkle.

“What you can’t do is to run out the clock so that people who are eligible to vote don’t get to vote in the March primary or, more importantly, in the presidential election,” he told DeSantis’s legal team. 

Campus voting

The clock is also ticking for another group of voters. After years of resistance, courts forced the state to allow early voting on college campuses in 2018. 

About 60,000 people cast ballots. Given the liberal leanings of many college students, the Legislature added a cockamamie provision to the new election law. 

It requires “sufficient non-permitted parking” at early voting sites. Legislators know on most college campuses; a non-permitted parking spot is harder to find than a conservative professor. 

“It’s never been about parking,” Brigham said. “This is about the constitutional right to vote early.”

The Florida League of Women Voters is challenging the law, but Brigham does not know if the courts will rule before 2020’s election days. 

To recap, the state is sending college students off campus if they want to vote, it’s requiring financial documentation that often doesn’t exist and it’s turned a syntax discrepancy into a political sledgehammer. 

It’s hard not to be cynical. 

Ensuring safe voting

If you’re lucky enough to vote, at least your ballot (fingers crossed) should be secure. Russia accessed voting databases in two Florida counties in 2016, a breach the FBI kept secret for two years. 

State officials had to sign nondisclosure agreements. The lack of transparency is troubling, but the state has created cybersecurity partnership between counties and taken other steps to protect the election. 

The system withstood scrutiny of three statewide recounts in 2018. The ultimate safeguard, officials say, is hackers can’t alter Florida’s paper ballots. 

“That mark put on paper can’t change,” said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles. 

If only everybody eligible to make a mark could do so. Instead, Election 2020 looks like a legal quagmire designed to shape the outcome. 

Note to the Florida Legislature: Free and fair elections are the foundation of our democracy. It’s disturbing when the threats to that idea come from within and without.

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