Voting rules hazy for some who have served their time
MIAMI – Election Day is just weeks away, but when it comes to voter registration there haven't been any changes for felons.
That means some people may think they have the right to vote but are still in violation of the law.
"I try not to be an alarmist I think this could effect thousands of people," Alex Saiz, a lawyer with Florida Justice Center said.
The center is a legal aid non-profit.
Saiz is critical of the question on the registration, which is getting felons in trouble with the law, it reads, "I affirm I am not a convicted felon, or if I am my right to vote had been restored."
That can be confusing, "That's a legal statement that as of right now I don't know if there are 10 people in the state of Florida that can define that term," Saiz related.
It can also be something overlooked.
"I think we need to change the font on this so it's more conspicuous so people can see it, and be more aware, 2, I think there should be a statewide database on court costs and fees," he explained.
Currently, felons are only restored the right to vote if they've served all of their sentences, paid back money owed, or weren't convicted of murder or sexual offense.
The Miami-Dade County Black Affairs Advisory Board is concerned particularly with communities of color that have disproportionate incarceration rates.
2018 Pew Research showed Black Americans made up 33% of the prison population, yet made up 12% of the U.S. adult population.
"I am proposing the Florida association of election supervisors get together and create some legislation that will change the way information flows," Pierre Rutledge, Board Chair said.
Rutledge is advocating for voting approval to come from the local supervisor of the election's office, but it won't be for this upcoming election.
"There's an air of fear folks afraid that they go ahead and exercise their right to vote they're not sure whether they owe in terms of restitution they're not sure if it was a felony, that went a way, they're not really sure," Rutledge explained.
It could lead to a chilling effect that may mean lower voter turnout, particularly in marginalized communities.
That's why groups like Florida Justice Center want to be a resource for community organizations helping to get voters registered.
In the meantime, Saiz says there could potentially be more people would get arrested and charged.
"Every case that's a felony comes with some amount of court cost and it's my understanding that millions and millions of dollars are that outstanding. All of those clients cannot vote until those costs are paid," Saiz added. Saiz, "there are real life individuals who are being handcuffed and being prosecuted for violating these laws unintentionally."
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