Restoring rights: Clerk to help ‘returning citizens’ get back ability to vote

The Second Chances Event will be at Chambers Park Community Center in Kissimmee on Nov. 14, from 4 to 7 p.m. It’s being co-sponsored by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (above).

The Osceola Clerk of the Court next week is holding an event to help convicted felons restore their voting rights.

Tuesday marked a year since Florida voters approved the referendum making it possible for convicted felons to vote again. It excludes those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.

However, the process for so-called returning citizens to get on, or get back on, the voting rolls remains unclear as the Florida Supreme Court takes up the issue this week.

Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, requiring that all financial obligations related to their sentences be paid before rights could be restored.

The new law took effect July 1. But advocates for returning citizens filed a lawsuit shortly thereafter alleging that the financial requirement amounts to a poll tax —  a fee once required to vote in some states until it was outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1964.

What’s more, say the advocates, there is no comprehensive system for determining what felons owe or if they’ve paid up.

Still, Osceola’s Clerk of the Court Armando Ramirez is trying to help clear things up for Osceola County residents with felony convictions who want to vote.  

The Second Chances Event will be at Chambers Park Community Center in Kissimmee on Nov. 14, from 4 to 7 p.m. It’s being co-sponsored by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the Office of State Attorney Aramis Ayala and several other Central Florida nonprofits.

It will be a “one-stop-shop” for returning citizens of Osceola County to begin the process of having their records sealed or expunged,” according to a press release from Ramirez’s office.

Participants will be provided with a free, certified copy of the disposition of their cases by the Clerk’s office.

The State Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office of the Ninth Judicial Circuit also will be on hand to sign-off on any expunction cases, according to the Clerk’s Office. Those seeking that service must pay $75 for handling and a background check by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“I encourage all citizens and residents of our community that meet the necessary criteria to attend this event and benefit from it.  I am honored to be able to contribute with the resources of my office to make this one-stop-shop event possible,” Ramirez said.

Other services to be offered at the Second Chance Event include financial assistance with fines and fees from a felony conviction, job information for convicted felons, help with voter identification, financial resources and legal assistance.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual at the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Office.

While 10,724 Osceola residents have registered to vote this year, it’s impossible to tell how many of them are convicted felons.

That’s because the local Supervisor’s Office uses an older version of the Florida Voter Registration Application, according to Community Relations Manager Kari Ewalt.

That application has one box that registrees must check that covers both nonfelons and felons. It reads: “I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored.”

Other counties in Florida have gotten a new application from the Florida Division of Elections that distinguishes people with felony convictions from those without. Osceola has not been issued the new form.

All information regarding a person’s eligibility to vote is collected by the local elections office but is vetted by the state, Ewalt said.

When the state determines that someone may not be eligible, the local elections office is notified and typically is tasked with seeking additional information from the applicant, which is again vetted by the state, according to Ewalt.

So far, the state has not kicked back any voting applications related to felony convictions, she said.