Florida moves to remove felons with unpaid debts from voting rolls

A sign directs voters to a polling location during the Florida presidential primary on March 17, 2020 at Miami Beach City Hall in Miami Beach, Florida.

(CNN) -- Election officials in Florida are taking steps to remove ex-felons from the voter rolls if they still owe court debts, according to an email sent this week to county elections officials obtained by CNN.

The state's elections director, Maria Matthews, told local elections supervisors on Tuesday that they would begin to receive files on convicted felons "whose potential ineligibility is based on not having satisfied the legal financial obligations of their sentence." The email added that if local officials received information about registered voters who are ineligible from sources other than the Florida Department of State, "you should act on it."

The email was first reported by Politico.

The move comes after more than 1 million Floridians with felony convictions had their voting rights restored through a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018. But Florida's GOP-controlled Legislature later passed a bill saying ex-felons must settle all financial obligations such as fines, fees and restitution before their voting rights are restored.

A federal judge ruled in May that that state law amounted to an unconstitutional "pay-to-vote system," but in September a federal appeals court overturned that decision.

Local officials told CNN that the new directions from the state might not impact voter rolls for the 2020 election.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said Friday that he "wasn't really surprised that they're starting up the process of felon review," but that the lengthy removal process would prevent his office from taking anyone off the rolls by Election Day.

He said the county has seven days to send a letter to the registered voter and then the voter has 30 days to respond. "And if they don't respond we have to advertise ... so there are various different requirements that would prevent us from taking someone off before November 3."

Though he didn't think many Florida voters would actually be removed before Election Day, Earley said it's possible that if felons with court debts end up voting, their ballots could be challenged after the election.

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a Republican appointee, said in a statement that the federal appeals court ruling makes it clear that "the law, with respect to legal financial obligations, is now clear, and there is no legal basis for the department to ignore the obligations spelled out in Florida Statutes."

Lee said her department is legally required to review information from a number of sources related to felons whose voting rights have not been restored, and if that information is credible and reliable, that is shared with local supervisors.

A coalition of liberal-leaning voting rights and advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, condemned the state's efforts to remove people with felony convictions and legal financial obligations.

"Florida's proposed action is simply an attempt to scare people with felony convictions away from voting and constitutes voter intimidation — par for the course in Florida," the groups' statement said.

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