“I didn’t appreciate the vote until I lost my rights as a felon. If they want to stop a bunch of Blacks and Latinos from voting, it must be important.”
As the Nov. 3 election nears, in Florida another crucial electoral contest has been waged in the past two years: restoring voting rights for almost a million people, a new voting block who could swing elections. Many Latinos are on the front lines working to reinstate the right to vote for individuals with convictions, participants of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which bills its efforts as “a human rights issue.”
In a Nov. 2018 referendum, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 to allow the formerly incarcerated who had completed their sentence to recover the right to vote. The Amendment 4 referendum passed with 64.5% of the vote, restoring voting rights to as many as 1.4 million Floridians who had completed their sentences, many for possession of marijuana and other nonviolent crimes.
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Yraida Guanipa is a ‘returning citizen,’ a new voter enabled by Amendment 4 and an advocate for those who have completed their prison time. Born in Coro, Venezuela, Guanipa is now a human rights advocate and is working towards a doctorate. “Hispanics are embarrassed to admit they have been in jail. It’s part of the culture to keep bad news quiet (‘lavar la ropa sucia en casa’),” she explained to The Americano. “But many could recover their right to vote.”
Florida’s Amendment 4 had only two conditions: those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault did not qualify; and formerly incarcerated people first had to complete, “all terms of sentence including parole or probation and legal financial obligations.” Thirty states currently require those with a felony conviction to pay any fines, fees, costs, and restitution before they regain voting rights. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and Florida legislators have maneuvered legally and administratively to block the restoration of voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, saying they must complete “all terms and conditions of their sentence, including fines and restitution.”
Florida is a perennial battleground state in elections, and new Amendment 4 voters could decide this year’s outcome. According to electoral models; Donald Trump needs to win Florida in 2020 to remain as president. In 2016 Trump won Florida by just over 113,000 votes. In 2018, DeSantis won the governorship by just 33,000 votes over Andrew Gillum.
Until Amendment 4 and a subsequent 2019 law, the only way to get people with convictions’ rights restored was through the state’s clemency board. Last Sept. 11, the 11th Circuit federal appeals court ruling in favor of DeSantis and his administration, and effectively nullified Amendment 4 for about 800,000 Floridians.
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Less than a month from the presidential election, about 770,000 Floridians are still disenfranchised, according to a study by the University of Florida, marginalized by their inability to pay their fines. FRCC says about 80% of ‘returning citizens’ have not yet paid the fines they owe.
This, advocates argue, constitutes a modern poll tax that suppresses voting based on income and violates the 24th Amendment.
Guanipa’s face is a contradiction; she’s both animated and sad. Guanipa is advising women she met in prison, helping to gather documents and navigate bureaucracy so they can vote. Two weeks ago, a friend found out she was eligible to vote. “She didn’t know. We have so many battles to fight,” Guanipa sighs. Released in 2006, Guanipa tears up when she recalls that she saw her two sons—now 25 and 23—just six times in 11 years during her incarceration, and how they rejected her when she recovered her freedom.
She has issues with both Republicans and Democrats, but believes the 2020 presidential choice is clear. Part of her mission is to inform formerly incarcerated voters, stating, “I was stupid. I believed in the legal system. I’ve become a fighter. I now see the campaigns and it saddens me. I want to scream, ‘they are fooling many of us,’ just like [Venezuelan Hugo] Chávez did.”
Guanipa is now a woman constantly on the move, especially since she spent a decade in jail for a drug conspiracy charge. She explains she picked up a package for a Venezuelan customer at the Miami airport while working for a shipping company, was arrested by authorities for the cocaine shipment, opted for a trial during the “War on Drugs” and was convicted.
A Legal Labyrinth
Many returning citizens are caught in a Kafkian labyrinth of the interpretation of the law and bureaucratic tangles, exacerbated by the legal maneuvers to block their registration.
For example, Angel Sánchez completed his sentence, graduated from the University of Central Florida, and then obtained a law degree from the University of Miami, but is not sure if he is in the clear to vote Nov. 3. If he has fines pending, tries to register to vote and is not yet eligible, he could be charged with a felony.
There is no central registry or consistent recordkeeping. So a battery of lawyers, working pro bono and for the Florida RRC, is combing through county and state records for clemency or unknown fees. For people with past convictions, fines are usually between $1,000-$1,500, says the FRRC.
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When voting rights restoration in Florida became a financial fight, FRRC pivoted to gathering money to pay off fines. It raised more than $20 million, using crowdfunding and donations from high-profile advocates like Lebron James, former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, and singers Camila Cabello and John Legend.
Guanipa says she has been able to register more than 300 returning voters, and the FRRC says more than 4,000 returning citizens had their fines paid from the donations.
Florida RRC is now under increased scrutiny, as the organization and its founder, Desmond Meade, made news, including the lead feature on the newsmagazine “60 Minutes” on Sept. 27.
In recent days, representatives of the FRRC have curtailed their media presence. They also know by speaking publicly they could antagonize Florida or national politicians.
Israel Reyes, born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, is canvassing the Orlando area, registering voters often in economically distressed neighborhoods, noting, “I know how to move in these areas. They see that we have delivered.” The 47-year-old grew up in California in a troubled family and recognizes he has a checkered past and a short fuse.
He voted in the August primaries. “I didn’t appreciate the vote until I lost my rights as a felon. If they want to stop a bunch of Blacks and Latinos from voting, it must be important,” Reyes said. “I canvas the neighborhoods, and I registered a 70-year old, eight-time felon, who had never voted.”
“The last elections showed people didn’t want any more Bushes, another Clinton, or more Kennedys. And that’s why Trump won. But if we don’t vote against him, we’re going to end up with another Hitler.”
FRRC is stressing that their representatives not criticize or endorse politicians or issues, but The Americano spoke with a half-dozen formerly incarcerated people. One stated, on background, “The last elections showed people didn’t want any more Bushes, another Clinton, or more Kennedys. And that’s why Trump won. But if we don’t vote against him, we’re going to end up with another Hitler.”
But first, returning citizens must get to the ballot box, where Amendment 4 already has many allies.
“There’s a lot of people who voted for Amendment 4. They know it’s not being honored, and they will vote again and again. We’re still here,” concluded Guanipa. “Can we change the election? Absolutely.”