An earlier version of this story said police were deployed to arrest people accused of voting while ineligible in January 2022. The deployment was in August of that year. This story has been corrected.
NEW YORK — A voting rights group filed a lawsuit against presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) Wednesday morning over the use of “election police” and other alleged intimidation and voter suppression tactics aimed at citizens with felony criminal records.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and several individuals impacted by the state’s policies allege that they violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, hindering the rights of about 1.4 million formerly disenfranchised residents.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, argues that a lack of a reliable database allowing people with convictions to determine their voter eligibility status is unconstitutional and a failure to adhere to Amendment 4, a ballot initiative passed in 2018 to grant voting rights to people with felony records who are in good standing with the law.
After the ballot initiative was approved, lawmakers in Florida passed a bill clarifying that felons must pay court-ordered financial obligations like fines and restitution before voting rights are restored. The need to check for outstanding legal financial obligations complicated the process for those who were eligible, advocates have said.
DeSantis has said the effort is an important step in controlling voter fraud. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the filing.
The 74-page civil complaint says the governor and other defendants issued false or misleading information to citizens trying to sort through their rights, part of a “byzantine process in which … a potential voter’s eligibility is often determined by local practices that vary depending on the county in which they live.”
Many people sat out elections believing they could be targeted for trying to vote at polling sites, according to the lawsuit. Some were initially told they had paid all state fines they owed, only to be told later they had outstanding balances and were therefore ineligible to vote.
In August 2022, on DeSantis’s orders, police officers were deployed to arrest people who were accused of voting in the 2020 election without being eligible. Some of those arrested had been told they were eligible by state officials before they voted.
As a result of the enforcement push, people who are trying to reenter society are left with the impression that “if you do get it wrong, even in good faith, you’re going to get arrested,” said Carey Dunne of the Free + Fair Litigation Group, which is handling the case.
“This is just a more sophisticated version of the conduct that caused the Voting Rights Act to be passed in the first place,” Dunne said, referring to the federal legislation that addressed racial hurdles to voting, including past efforts to intimidate voters.
The suit seeks an order within 60 days compelling officials in Florida to begin complying with the law, including by creating a trustworthy central database where people with criminal convictions can check their status. The group also asks the court to appoint a monitor to oversee the state’s compliance with state and federal laws governing voting.
In addition to DeSantis, who launched his presidential campaign in May and has struggled to gain traction against former president Donald Trump, the lawsuit names a number of state and county officials as defendants.
Rhoshanda Bryant-Jones is one of four individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The 57-year-old Army veteran recovered from drug addiction 14 years ago after several arrests related to drugs. She said getting her right to vote back five years ago made her feel like a productive citizen — “another part of putting my past behind me and moving forward.”
Now a married homeowner who has made a career supporting others recovering from addiction, she said she stopped voting, however, because she felt she could not risk getting caught up in Florida’s voter crackdowns.
“I didn’t want to risk my freedom [and] all that I accomplished being 14 years clean and then to be arrested for voting?” Bryant-Jones said in an interview before the lawsuit was filed. “I just wouldn’t.”
Bryant-Jones paid $800 to the court when her last conviction was working through the system. She believed that amount was her only balance until 2021, when during a background check she learned she owed thousands more. She quickly paid that amount but still does not see it as safe to vote.
Her fear of voting is now a source of shame, she said — a sentiment that calls her back to the emotional toll she faced as an addict.
Desmond Meade, who heads the coalition behind the lawsuit, said his organization tried to work with the state to facilitate the eligibility and registration process for people with convictions before filing the lawsuit but that the relevant authorities did not engage.
“What we’re asking [the judge] to do is compel the state to do its job,” he said. “It should not be a hodgepodge of policies and procedures to make that determination as it relates to what a person needs to do in order to become eligible.”