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Formerly incarcerated Floridians won the right to vote—this campaign is fighting to let them keep it

After an amendment passed in Florida to restore voting rights to convicted felons, the governor signed a law saying they still had to pay often-onerous court fees. Free the Vote’s Florida Voting Rights campaign—a winner of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards—is fighting the law.

Formerly incarcerated Floridians won the right to vote—this campaign is fighting to let them keep it
[Photo: courtesy Free The Vote]

In 2018, voters in Florida approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for approximately 1.4 million previously convicted felons, who had been barred from the voting booth by Florida law. But when the amendment was supposed to go into effect in January 2019, things did not go so smoothly. Florida governor Ron DeSantis had signed a bill requiring former felons to pay any outstanding court fines and fees before they could have their voting rights restored. Though he has denied that the measure was discriminatory, voting activists say it’s an illegal poll tax, making it impossible for people to exercise their constitutional vote unless they have enough money.

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The fight over DeSantis’s measure is still ongoing: A lawsuit against the governor by 17 former felons is supposed to go to trial April 27, and activists are working both to make sure the new voters created by the amendment know they can vote, and to help pay the fees of the ones who as of yet cannot. On the front lines of this effort have been the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) and FreeAmerica, two organizations that, through their Free the Vote: Florida Voting Rights campaign, have supported the passing of Amendment 4 and the efforts to ensure it restores voting rights to everyone. Free the Vote is the winner in the Politics and Policy category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards.

Restoring the Right to Vote

Our democracy is vibrant when we can all access it. Share this video if you agree and donate to the Amendment 4 Fines and Fees Campaign to help returning citizens: https://wegotthevote.org/finesandfees/#Amendment4 #FREETHEVOTE

Posted by FreeAmerica on Thursday, January 16, 2020

Helping to get Amendment 4 passed was a huge success, says Priya Chordia, co-head of Social Impact Practice at Propper Daley, a social impact agency that partnered with musician John Legend to start FreeAmerica. But, because of those measures that added roadblocks to this right, their work wasn’t over.

In 2019, FreeAmerica hosted a fundraiser in Florida in conjunction with FRRC to raise money to pay off formerly incarcerated peoples’ fines and fees, which were preventing them from being able to vote. The reason, Chordia says, was twofold: “One, because we wanted to help people immediately, and then two, to help raise awareness about how ridiculous that whole proposition was.”

Along with that fundraising, the Free the Vote campaign grew to include efforts to register voters who didn’t have outstanding fees and could immediately have their voting rights restored. Of the 1.4 million Floridians affected by the amendment, 560,000 were impacted by the stipulations regarding fines and fees, but 840,000 were not, meaning they could immediately register to vote. But many didn’t know they could or didn’t know how to. The campaign also set up the first court proceedings to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated residents. Working with grassroots organizations, such as FRRC, is crucial to having maximum on-the-ground impact, Chordia says.

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Know Your Rights

In most states, people with criminal records CAN vote. Know your rights, call today to learn more: 866.OUR.VOTE

Posted by FreeAmerica on Thursday, September 22, 2016

At those court proceedings, which came about through a collaboration with Miami-Dade County and local elected officials who supported broadening voter rights, John Legend himself was in the crowd to celebrate the restoration of voter rights for those formerly incarcerated Floridians, which also helped, she adds, to “keep this issue front and center and in focus.”

Even though there wasn’t an upcoming election these Floridians could immediately head to the polls for, this work was still crucial. “The most effective low-propensity voter engagement strategies are ones that happen in the four years in between election cycles, not the immediate time leading up to the election cycle,” Chordia says. “You’re not going to get somebody who is a low-propensity voter to vote for the first time if you just engage them right before the election cycle, because they don’t have faith and confidence in the institutions and people that you’re trying to get them to come out for.”

FreeAmerica’s overarching goal is to end mass incarceration, and Chordia admits that will take a long time to accomplish. In Florida, the goal is relatively straightforward: “to ensure that Amendment 4, which enfranchised 1.4 million Floridians, is upheld in its original intent, and that the people who have the ability to vote through Amendment 4 are able to exercise their right to vote.” Ahead of the April 27 trial, she hopes that the barriers of those fines and fees will be removed, and that FreeAmerica’s work with FRRC helped open people’s eyes to this issue and the real people behind it.

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