With a court appeal still in process, formerly incarcerated Floridians and allies are mobilizing to restore voting rights to thousands ahead of the November election. Led by Desmond Meade, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) works with formerly incarcerated citizens in restoring their voting rights.

“A person’s economic status should never be a barrier to them having access to the ballot box,” said Meade in an interview with Prism.

As previously reported by Prism in May, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle held that Florida’s existing pay-to-vote system was unconstitutional and unduly burdened returning citizens who could not afford to pay outstanding legal financial obligations in order to have their voting rights restored. The state’s appeal of Hinkle’s decision delayed a majority of formerly incarcerated people from being able to register and participate in the August primary.

“Based on testimony given during trial, about 774,000 [formerly incarcerated people] have some type of outstanding legal obligation,” said Meade. 

Supported in part by a $200,000 rapid response grant from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, FRRC works with formerly incarcerated citizens to resolve outstanding fines and fees, the last barrier to rights restoration under Senate Bill 7066 enacted after the successful passage of Amendment 4 in 2018. FRRC raised close to $4 million for this effort as of the end of last month.

Meade described the process of determining what people owe as challenging. FRRC staff and attorney partners are searching through records and working with clerks of courts in hopes of finding a definitive answer as to how much someone owes.

“In some cases we have folks [who] thought they owed but didn’t,” Meade said. “There were some people who did not have an indication of guilt, [meaning] they haven’t even lost their right to vote.”

The Gainesville Sun previously reported on an Alachua County assistant public defender taking on a pro bono case in an effort to help would-be voter Robert Coleman resolve his outstanding financial obligation. Alachua County Assistant Public Defender Rachael O’Brien filed a petition on Coleman’s behalf using a provision in Senate Bill 7066 that permits an individual to petition a judge to waive fines and fees.

Removing the financial barrier to accessing the ballot is a priority for Meade. “No state should ever force its citizens to choose between putting food on their table and voting,” he said. Meade said that they are approaching this effort through an equity lens, prioritizing Floridians from traditionally marginalized communities. FRRC placed emphasis on rural communities that have also been heavily impacted by systemic racism.

“These communities that have traditionally been marginalized will now have an opportunity to participate in democracy,” Meade said. “Now they [will be] empowered to bring about the changes that they need in their community.”

Meade, a formerly incarcerated person, voted for the first time in Florida’s August primary election. “It was not lost on me that while I’m [going to vote] the state was getting ready to be arguing in [court] against me being able to do just that.”

For its part, the Marguerite Casey Foundation has an express commitment to helping communities traditionally denied access to power and opportunity. Vice President of Programs Jonathan Jayes-Green challenged the relationship some philanthropic organizations have had with communities they claim to serve.

“Philanthropy is used to being the center of power,” said Jayes-Green. Jayes-Green reflected on the early investment in FRRC and commitment to ongoing support  to see the full promise of Amendment 4 realized by restoring voting rights to all regardless of ability to pay.

“Our job is to deeply invest in social justice leaders across this country, get out of their way, and let them lead us through and to the version of this country that they see for themselves and for all of us, because that’s how we get free,” Jayes-Green said.

Geared specifically toward formerly incarcerated people, FRRC’s 2020 Voter Guide gives formerly incarcerated people the resources to learn about their eligibility for rights restoration, the electoral process, and roles of key elected positions. It also provides information on how to request help if a person believes they have an outstanding legal financial obligation and cannot afford to pay.  

“We talk a lot in this country about ‘the fundamentals of our democracy,’ and it doesn’t get any more fundamental than people having the ability to participate in it,” said Jayes-Green. “With this fight and in this moment, it is important that people have the opportunity to participate in our democracy.”

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.