Florida ex-felons voting in 2020 for 'second chance'
Floridians are next in line to vote this Presidential primary season, with the primaries scheduled for Tuesday, March 17. Among those heading to the polls this year -- former felons who recently had their right to vote restored.
The developments in Florida are leading to hope, and challenges, for former felons, like Dexter Gunder.
“Our voice is our vote," said Dexter Gunder, Southern Regional Organizer for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Gunder is part of a movement of fellow former felons and activists looking to politically engage folks in a key swing state.
At a town hall meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Gunder and other activists shared their stories, as well as tips to get others registered to vote.
“Before I never cared about voting and stuff like that. Going through this process of being incarcerated, it made me have a different outlook on voting," explained Gunder.
In 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, paving the way for more than a million former felons to have their voting rights restored -- as long as they were not convicted of murder or a felony sex crime.
The Republican-majority state legislature then passed legislation that required felons pay their court fines before they’re eligible to vote. Some local governments are waiving fees, while others are not.
But advocacy groups aren’t wasting any time. They are registering voters right now and helping them raise money to pay off their fees.
“I got involved in this movement and got to take that pain and those bad decisions and turn them into good decisions," said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Volz was convicted on a felony fraud charge. 13 years later, he can vote again.
“It was like becoming a citizen all over again. I mean, I cried, we were hugging," said Volz.
With Florida in the spotlight for the 2020 elections, Seminole County Supervisor Chris Anderson is on the governor’s task force to get ready for the potential influx of these new voters.
“I’m going to do my part on the board to ensure that their choices count,” said Anderson.
Judges are deciding whether it’s legal to prevent some felons from voting until those fines are paid. One federal court already ruled that 17 felons could not be blocked from voting – even though their debts were not fully paid off, but that decision was appealed. A trial is set for April.
Elections officials are not necessarily able to track how many former felons have registered to vote so far. But some officials noticed an uptick in registrations shortly after the amendment took effect.
Until Amendment 4, Florida was one of only four states whose constitution effectively permanently disenfranchised citizens with prior felony records. Before this constitutional amendment, the Florida Governor held the power to restore those voting rights.