In the spring of 2022, State Attorney Brian Kramer readied for a wave of applications.
“We literally were preparing for how to set up systems so we could make sure we can handle the volume,” Kramer said. “And preparing people who would ask and say, ‘Listen, we might take a while to get back to you because of volume.’”
But the surge never showed. Instead, Kramer said the Eighth Judicial District, covering the counties of Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union, received a stream of about two applications per month and less than 30 since the start.
In an interview, Kramer said the result surprised him, and he’s not exactly sure of the reasons.
The program in question concerns the voting rights of convicted felons. Through the eighth district office, anyone concerned about their eligibility to vote can send in an application, and Kramer’s staff will dig into their background to check. It’s called the Voting Rights Restoration Verification Program.
Kramer said his office already had processes in place for the background checks. Dedicated state attorney staff dive into a person’s history in order to seal and expunge records, and the process works to flag a voting rights issue without needing more funding.
“I felt I could help with people who legitimately have a concern that they do not know whether or not they can vote or not vote and they want to know,” Kramer said. “What I have discovered over the course of the year is that there just aren't that many people there.”
In 2018, Florida voted to approve Amendment 4, allowing voting rights for felons except for those convicted of a sexual offense or murder. The Florida Supreme Court settled litigation around the amendment and declared that those felons must pay off financial obligations included in their sentence.
Since then, national politics has increased scrutiny of voting security and rights, and Gov. Ron DeSantis instituted an Office of Election Crimes and Security in 2022.
“You have one side saying that there's bunches of people who are voting illegally; you have another side who's saying nobody understands what they're supposed to be doing so everybody should be allowed to vote,” Kramer said of the national discourse.
He said the program solves the issue raised that Florida’s system to restore voting rights is too complicated for felons to navigate. Now, he can point to the program as a way for people to check their status and let the community know that the Eighth Judicial District has a way to find out.
Besides aiding felons with voting, the program also serves as a legal counter to illegal voters who say they can’t figure out their voting status, Kramer said.
However, Kramer also makes clear that the answer given by the program—either a yes you can vote or no you can’t—only serves as an opinion. He said state attorneys prosecute when told of a violation, but his office doesn’t grant the authority to vote.
The program does protect felons from prosecution within the Eighth Judicial District if Kramer’s office commits an error, accidentally giving a green light to vote when they shouldn’t.
Despite national discourse and a string of local voting charges at the Alachua County Jail, the wave of applications has yet to materialize. Kramer points to several possible reasons.
First, he may have failed in spreading the word about the program. The office sent press releases in May to inform the media, and Supervisor of Elections offices have links to the program on their websites.
Kramer lacks any funds for advertising. His budget, approved by the Legislature, lacks any line item for advertising funds, preempting him from buying a YouTube ad or I-75 billboard.
“I just don't know that I could do more,” Kramer said. “I'm not gonna go stand on University [Avenue] with a sign that says, ‘Are you a convicted felon? Stop by and see if you can vote.’”
Kramer said advertising isn’t his job, and with numbers so low, he lacks a way to convince legislatures that the program is worth funding.
A second possible reason, Kramer said, could be that felons already know whether or not they can vote. If so, those felons don’t need to use the program.
He said the qualifications aren’t that complicated. Felons convicted of murder or sexual assault can never vote again unless granted by the State Clemency Board, and other felons can vote once the fees associated with their convictions are paid. If felons owe money, Kramer said a judge told them in court about the amount they must pay. That sticks in your mind, he said.
Of the illegal voting cases he’s prosecuted, Kramer said the issue has been pretty clear. The convict signed saying they could legally vote and knew otherwise. He said it comes back to an individual choice, checking a box that shouldn’t be checked.
He added that Florida does allow felons to still vote despite fees as long as a judge gives a waiver. He said that often happens when felons owe a huge sum that won’t get paid quickly.
“But very few people pursue that,” Kramer said. “When people run into problems is when they aren't doing anything. They're not taking any responsibility to determine whether or not they're eligible, and then they're just going off and voting.”
Voter apathy could be a final reason for low program numbers, Kramer said.
At the November 2022 election, Alachua County had a 53.3% voter turnout. Neighboring counties showed similar numbers: Levy County had 58%, Gilchrist County had 65.4%, Baker County had 61.3%, Bradford County had 57.2% and Union County had 59.7%.
For the primary voting in August 2022, the percentage was lower, and individual city seats also saw lower participation. For the Gainesville mayoral race, only 48% of registered voters cast a ballot.
If felons don’t care to vote, why apply to see if it’s possible?
Kramer said he can imagine scenarios when a felon truly confused an issue and voted incorrectly but sincerely. However, he said none of those scenarios have ever come before his desk. He said the cases are pretty clear. But the voter verification remains open for felons with questions.
There's a lot of 'imagination' involved in too many political programs. If the politicians are going to spend taxpayer money, they should have to deal with facts about things that have already occurred. Otherwise, they're not facts.
Hopefully, those convicted of felonies that are voting again can figure out the new systems - it doesn't appear too difficult, and I don't think felons in general are an incapable group - they just have different values, sort of like everyone else.
Gee, one reason could be that In August 2022, DeSantis's election police arrested 20 people with felony convictions for voting, all of whom were under the impression they were newly eligible.
Kramer said in his statement that they knew they couldn't vote. What they said later to keep from being prosecuted is another part of the story.
i wonder why the author did not ask the question, how can a state who manages the prisons and jails, and the courts, and voting apparatus, and elections, NOT KNOW who is supposed to vote, or why is it, upon request, the state cannot answer the question?
Maybe we need to find some manner to rejig the system to allow both confidentiality and knowledge?