Florida felons’ vote hangs in balance as elections near

Published: Aug. 14, 2020 at 10:43 AM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Florida voters are heading to the polls Tuesday, August 18 for the primary elections. But hundreds of thousands of felons, who thought they would be able to vote once again, cannot cast their ballots next week. That’s because of an ongoing heated legal battle over whether convicts should have to pay off court fines and fees before being able to vote once again. It just so happens that the next hearing on this case falls on election day.

“It breaks my heart because at the end of this whole process are real people,” said Neil Volz, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRCC) deputy director.

Voting rights for felons hang in the balance because of a state law still being debated in the courts. Neil Volz helps fellow felons who have done their time reconnect with their communities. And these days, every vote counts in this key swing state.

“It gives you just a feeling of worth and dignity when you’re able to step back on the field and be a voter again,” said Volz, whose right to vote was restored January 2019.

“I registered to vote, and it was such an overwhelming experience. I was there with family and friends, crying, hugging people I didn’t even know,” said Volz.

Florida voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved ’amendment four’, a constitutional amendment saying felons can vote once they finish their sentences, except for those convicted of murder or rape.

The Republican-controlled state government passed a law saying felons must first pay off court fines, fees or restitution to victims before being able to register to vote.

But courts so far ruled that this law is unconstitutional. Judges allowed the state to hold off on lifting the financial requirements until the full eleventh circuit court of appeals takes up the case.

“Hundreds of thousands of people who could’ve voted a couple months ago suddenly aren’t going to be able to vote in the primary,” said Volz.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene as lower courts continue reviewing the cast, dealing a major setback to activists like Volz.

“It’s heart-breaking. I was sad when I heard about the court decision and that’s turned into anger and passion to try and keep fighting for families and communities and for people who are embracing second chances and believe in the concepts of forgiveness and redemption and restoration,” said Volz.

Julie Ebenstein, the ACLU’s senior staff attorney working on the voting rights issues, says this law disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color.

“Before the voters of Florida passed amendment four and expanded the right to vote to people with a prior conviction, 10 percent of the overall voting-age population was disenfranchised for a conviction, 23 percent of the black voting-age population was disenfranchised in Florida because of a conviction, so the racial implications are severe and they’re readily apparent,” explained Ebenstein.

Ebenstein also says because Florida has no statewide database where felons can look up whether they have any unpaid debts, there’s a complicated patchwork of policies, where some counties waived fees, while others did not.

Volz says FRCC helps folks navigate the system, by offering pro-bono legal advice and helping former offenders seek financial relief from the court systems if they are unable to pay off court fines and fees.

“Ultimately it’s all about not letting the obstacles get in the way of us fulfilling the spirit of amendment four, and allowing people to have their voices heard in the democratic process,” said Volz.

Ebenstein notes that before this constitutional amendment took effect, Florida was just one of four states that disenfranchised people for life for a felony conviction.

“All three of those other states have made significant improvements towards restoring voting rights, either by law or by executive order,” said Ebenstein about changes in recent years.

She says Florida’s amendment four is one of the largest expansion in voting rights that the country has seen in decades.

“We’ve really seen that as a trend nationwide, that people are recognizing everybody deserves a second chance,” said Ebenstein.

The Atlanta-based court is scheduled to take up the case Tuesday morning. There is no set timeline on when the court could return a ruling.

“Everybody in Florida needs a decision well before the November general election, so we’re still hopeful that we’ll have clarity from the appeals court well before the election,” said Ebenstein.

Gray DC reached out repeatedly to the Florida Governor’s office, as well as to the attorney leading the government’s side of this case. We have not yet heard back on our multiple requests for an interview or statement.

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