By JENNI GOLDSTEIN, ABC News
(FLORIDA) — Former convicted felons in Florida who are voting for the first time under Florida’s Amendment 4 could potentially swing the November election. Under this Amendment, a person convicted of a felony in Florida as of 2018 is eligible to vote after completing all terms of his or her sentence.
ABC’s Lionel Moise spoke with Tampa resident Pastor Clifford Tyson, who voted in a Presidential election for the first time in 42 years.
Lionel Moise’s full report can be heard on the ABC News “Perspective” podcast.
“It felt wonderful because I had my 90-year-old father with me, also I had my 26-year-old son,” said Tyson.
Voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot initiative in 2018. Previously, the state of Florida disenfranchised everyone who had a felony conviction.
“Florida used to have the worst system in the country when it came to felony disenfranchisement,” said Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights project. According to Ebenstein, when Amendment 4 was passed, about 1.6 million convicted felons in the state were not allowed to vote.
“Politicians in Florida, unfortunately, in 2019 passed a law that interpreted all terms of sentence to include payment of legal financial obligation,” said Attorney Ebenstein.
Just like in many other states, people are charged fees and fines when they are convicted of an offense. The ACLU along with several other groups sued to block the financial requirement, but in September of 2020 a federal appeals court ruled that felons are required to pay all expenses before they can vote.
Those willing and able to pay those fines and fees sometimes find it difficult to do so.
“It’s one thing to be able to say to folks, ‘Hey, you got to pay back your fines and fees in order to vote.’ It’s another thing when those folks show up and say ‘How much do I owe?’ The state says, ‘Oh, well, we can’t really tell you because there are 67 counties and it’s really complicated,’” said Neel Sukhatme, an associate professor of law at Georgetown University and the co-founder and director of the non-partisan group Free Our Vote.
Sukhatme argues that regardless of your political background, convicted felons should have accurate information on how much they owe in fines and fees.
The Free Our Vote team gathered and cross-reference data sets from across the state. This includes the Clerk of Courts, Department of Corrections and voter registration records. The goal was to make Free Our Vote into a clearinghouse, where those convicted of felonies could get the information they needed on what specific payments they owed and where they could resolve them.
It was a life-changing moment for Pastor Tyson when found out his balance in Hillsborough County was zero dollars. He is now trying to encourage others to carry out their civic duty and exercise their right to vote.
“They live to vote and die trying to vote. My vote is just as important as theirs. My rights are just as important to me. I made some mistakes back in those days, I lost that right. But I paid my dues to society,” said Pastor Tyson.
According to Florida Department of State spokesperson Mark Ard, the state does not separately track registered voters who had their voting rights restored under Amendment 4. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition estimates that since it passed, 67,000 people with prior felony convictions were able to register to vote.
Florida is a closely watched state as the November election approaches. 29 electorates are up for grabs.
“It’s Florida, six hundred votes can make the difference in national Presidential elections. But I hope that those who are now registered, who passed the registration deadline, will go to the polls and cast their ballot and will join in the Democratic process in a very exciting time to be involved,” said Attorney Ebenstein.
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