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18 Former Inmates Get Voting Rights Restored in Miami, but Thousands More Face Challenging State Restrictions

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Last month, 18 formerly incarcerated residents of Miami, Florida had their voting rights restored.

“It’s a proud day for myself and my father—born in Haiti, he’s 84 years old—to see me get my rights restored,” said Dolce Bastien, 44, when interviewed by the New York Times. Convicted of attempted second-degree murder and first-degree arson at the age of 19, Bastien has since become a dialysis technician. He is now eligible to vote, a right he has yet to exercise.

Each of the 18 received a signed court order verifying that they did not have any outstanding court fines, fees, or cost stemming from previous felony convictions. However, for many more cash-strapped Floridians with criminal records, these fines are a challenging hurdle to clear.

In the past, Florida residents with felony convictions forfeited the right to vote, unless a state clemency board restored voting privileges. But during the November 2018 elections, 64 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, which—with the exception of those convicted of murder or sexual offenses—reinstates voting rights of some 1.5 million former felons statewide.

Support for Amendment 4 in Florida is especially significant as the state has the highest rate of felony disenfranchisement in the country and a disproportionate number of disenfranchised African-Americans. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Blacks represent just 16 percent of the population, yet account for 46 percent of those incarcerated in Florida. The Los Angeles Times reports that prior to the Amendment 4 victory, 10 percent of adults, and almost a quarter of African-American adults in the state could not vote.

The groundbreaking ballot initiative left Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia as the three remaining states with laws prohibiting former felons from voting. Sponsored by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, with support from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition of America, Amendment 4 automatically restored the voting rights of ex-offenders who had served out their sentence including parole and probation, as of January 8.

Then, last May, the Florida House and Senate passed separate legislation requiring ex-felons or ‘returning citizens’ to settle all court-imposed fees before they can vote. Passage of these bills reflect partisan politics in which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican controlled state government have sought to undercut Amendment 4, which could alter voter rolls in favor of Democrats ahead of the 2020 elections.

According a report published by the Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic in July, “an estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in fines and fees related to criminal convictions.” Research has also shown that families in 14 states paid $13,600 on average in court-related fees.

Civil and voting rights groups have challenged the controversial legislation, and a federal judge ruled in October that the denial of voting rights to former felons who are “genuinely unable” to pay these debts is constitutional. In addition, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said that state officials should develop a process that allows for the disenfranchised to prove that they cannot afford to pay fees in order to gain voting access. 

Absent an official process, Democratic state attorneys in Miami-Dade and other large Florida counties, are trying to help those attempting to vote despite the state restrictions. Such efforts include a fast-track processing system developed by Miami-Dade state attorney, Katherine Fernández Rundle, which helped to identify the eighteen individuals who had their voting rights restored in Miami last month. 

“Until there’s a uniform statewide system that ensures that people aren’t disenfranchised because they can’t afford to pay,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, “then there’s an unconstitutional system in place.”

Cassandra Etienne is a freelance reporter and video journalist based in New Jersey. Her multimedia and documentary projects reflect an interest in cultural reporting, and in covering social issues such as civil rights, women's health, and education and healthcare reforms.