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In Florida, path to restoring felons’ voting rights has been fraught with challenge

Until 2018, Florida was one of only a few states that banned felons from voting for life. But that year, a two-thirds majority of the state passed an initiative to restore voting eligibility to felons who had served their sentences. It was a major victory for voting rights -- but the subsequent implementation has been fraught with legal battles, politics and confusion. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Florida was one of only a few states that banned felons from voting for life, until 2018, when a majority of Floridians passed an initiative giving felons who had served their sentences the right to vote back.

    It was a major victory for voting rights.

    But as Stephanie Sy reports, the implementation has been fraught with legal battles and confusion.

  • Coral Nichols:

    So, I was just looking at this picture. It was actually the day that I was released from prison.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Coral Nichols was 23 years old when she went to prison for financial fraud.

    What was it like in prison?

  • Coral Nichols:

    A lot of harassment, a lot of male guards being in places they shouldn't be.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    After serving a four-and-a-half year sentence, she was released into a world she barely recognized.

  • Coral Nichols:

    What are people going to think of me? How are they going to see me? Will I ever live past this?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Today, Coral, now 41, runs a nonprofit organization that helps other people grappling with the challenges of life after prison.

    And while criminal justice advocates like to call them returning citizens, not all their rights as citizens are returned to them.

  • Coral Nichols:

    I am a free individual inside and out, but I am not free to cast a vote right now. I am continually reminded by society that I am a felon.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Florida used to be one of the only states to ban former felons from voting for life. But in the 2018 midterms, two-thirds of Florida voters decided to automatically restore the voting rights to former felons who had completed their sentences. It excluded those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.

  • Desmond Meade:

    We showed the entire world that, in spite of our racial differences, in spite of our political differences, that we could come together as human beings and move major policy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    With Florida home to a full quarter of all former felons in the country, the act promised to enfranchise some 1.4 million people, including Desmond Meade.

    A former felon himself, he was a driving force behind getting Amendment 4 on the ballot. But more than a year after its passage, his job is not finished.

  • Desmond Meade:

    To see the spirit of Amendment 4 get pulled down into the mud of partisan back and forth and legal maneuvering and all of that, it is kind of disheartening.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The legal maneuvering started soon after the ballot measure passed, when Republicans in the Florida Statehouse passed legislation saying that only those former felons who paid off all fines and fees would be eligible to vote, leaving folks like Coral Nichols wondering whether they'd ever get their vote back.

    The judge ordered you to pay how much in restitution?

  • Coral Nichols:

    A hundred and ninety thousand dollars.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How much of that have you paid?

  • Coral Nichols:

    I'm down to $180,000, so $10,000 of that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    State Representative Jamie Grant is chairman of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee. He wrote the bill focusing on these financial obligations.

  • State Rep. Jamie Grant:

    Fines, fees, costs, restitution, all of that is part of a sentence in the state of Florida. So, I believe in restoration and redemption, but I also believe in fidelity to our constitution.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Grant says he also included in the bill a way for former felons to get their fees waived.

    But opponents, including groups now suing the state of Florida, say the new requirements amount to a poll tax and are themselves unconstitutional. In October, a federal judge blocked the rule.

    On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, Desmond Meade and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition marched in a parade in St. Petersburg, Florida. People in the crowd who voted for Amendment 4 over a year ago said they'd seen it as a straightforward mandate.

  • Ilana Gootson:

    The people's will is that they wanted it to be as easy as possible, because they believed their rights should be restored.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In some districts, local officials are taking matters into their own hands, like Hillsborough County state attorney Andrew Warren.

    Warren is working with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to help returning citizens through the process of getting their fees waived.

  • Andrew Warren:

    We're committed to fulfilling the will of voters. They said very clearly they wanted Amendment 4. And since there is nothing to implement Amendment 4 from what the legislature did, it falls to us. And that's exactly what we're doing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But most Florida counties have yet to set up pathways to restore voting rights.

    Back at the parade, Desmond Meade isn't letting the setback slow him down.

    What's driving you right now? Like, it seems like you want to get to as many people as possible.

  • Desmond Meade:

    You know it. That's right. You know, I tell you, we're running into people who don't even know Amendment 4 is passed.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Brenda Purnell Morris is a volunteer with Meade's group.

  • Brenda Purnell Morris:

    My husband. I'm directly impacted. So, it was very hard to be married to a felon.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So has his right to vote been restored now?

  • Brenda Purnell Morris:

    Yes, and he has his voter registration card. And I am so happy for him.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Many of the folks we have talked to here at the MLK Day Parade in St. Petersburg say the challenges to Amendment 4 are just the latest attempt to suppress the African-American vote.

    While the majority of former felons in Florida are white, black people were disproportionately affected by the ban, and black voters have overwhelmingly backed Democrats.

    In this key swing state, any move that could alter the electorate is seen as political. President Trump won Florida by just over 100,000 votes in 2016. In Bush vs. Gore, just a few hundred votes made the difference.

    But if politics does explain why returning citizens now face another hurdle to vote in Florida, Coral Nichols challenges the logic.

  • Coral Nichols:

    There's this misconception that every felon is a Democrat and that, if we all register to vote, that this — that the state will swing and we will become a Democrat state. And it's far from the truth.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You're a Republican.

  • Coral Nichols:

    I am a registered Republican.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The only thing clear is the confusion. And, so far, it is estimated only 50,000 former felons have registered to vote.

    Desmond Meade is among them.

  • Desmond Meade:

    Well, I know, on Election Day, I'm probably going to cry. Yes, I believe it's less about me voting and more about that people now have an opportunity to vote where opportunity didn't exist a couple of years ago.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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