The Great Divide

Why restoring voting rights to former felons is "one of the key civil right issues of our time"

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As Nov. 3 approaches, Americans are making plans to cast their vote, whether via mail-in ballots, early voting or heading to the polls in person on Election Day. The right to vote might be guaranteed by the Constitution, but there are over 5 million Americans previously convicted of a felony who have lost their opportunity to make their voices heard in the electoral process.

Some may never regain the right, while others are required to pay fines and fees in order to legally cast a ballot again. The disenfranchisement of former felons, which disproportionately affects people of color, is "one of the key civil rights issues of our time," says Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick thought he had lost his voting rights for life after he was convicted on dog-fighting charges in 2007. During his 13 years in the league, the four-time Pro Bowler received the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2010, after missing two NFL seasons while serving a 23-month prison sentence.

"There was never anyone around me talking about my voting rights other than my wife," he tells CNBC Make It. "She was extremely concerned and always asked, 'When can you get your voting rights back? And when will you be able to get the felony expunged off your record?' And I'm looking at her like, 'Never. You know it's never going to happen.'"

Former quarterback Michael Vick looks on prior to the game between the New England Patriots and the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on December 01, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
Bob Levey | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Vick, who is part of LeBron James' More Than a Vote initiative to fight voter suppression, is now using his platform to spread the message that many former felons can, in fact, have their voting rights restored. In September, Vick worked with voting rights activist Desmond Meade to ensure that all of his fines and fees were paid off and his paperwork was filled out so that Vick could have his own voting rights restored as a Florida resident.

Meade, who is the president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRCC), has helped Vick, along with millions of other people, regain their right to vote. As a previously convicted felon, Meade, a graduate of Florida International University College of Law, spent years working on voting and criminal justice reform issues.

In 2018, his grassroots efforts and years of community organizing paid off when he, along with other members of FRCC, got Amendment 4 passed in Florida, a law that helped restore the voting rights for over 1.4 million Florida residents with past felony convictions, not including those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. Prior to this amendment, Florida was one of four states, including Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa, where all people with felony convictions were permanently blocked from voting. 

Though the amendment was a historic win, with 64.5% of Florida voters voting in favor of it, Meade and his fellow activists soon learned that the path to voting for formerly incarcerated individuals was still littered with road blocks. Shortly after voters approved Amendment 4, Florida lawmakers passed a law forcing former felons to pay all fines and fees associated with their sentence before they can vote. This law is a "gamesmanship of the past," and it's a modern-day form of voter suppression, says Aden.

Aden, who refers to the law as a "poll tax," emphasizes that supporters of this bill are aware that "Black people are disproportionately poor in this country or have wealth disparities as compared to White people," and they're aware that "people with felony convictions have a very hard time getting jobs." Therefore, she says it's nearly impossible for many former felons to pay all of their fines and fees in order to vote.

Between January and March of 2019, more than 44% of formerly incarcerated Floridians who registered to vote were Black, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The average income of these formerly incarcerated residents who registered to vote during this time was nearly $15,000 below that of the average voter in Florida. In 2018, Florida's median household income stood at $55,462, according to the Census Bureau.  

Though the fines and fees associated with a felony charge vary, it's estimated that some felons in Florida pay as much as $10,000 in fines. In some states, like Alaska, fines for a felony can be as much as $500,000. This cost is in addition to court and jury fees, with many states also adding interest surcharges for felons on payment plans. In more than 40 states, according to The Atlantic, former inmates can be re-incarcerated if they fail to pay their fees.

In response to the passing of the new Florida bill, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida and the Brennan Center for Justice filed a lawsuit in 2019 against the state, arguing that the new law violates the 24th Amendment, which prohibits Congress or any state from imposing a "poll tax" on individuals who are eligible to vote.

On Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, six judges from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the bill was not unconstitutional and that former felons in Florida will still be legally expected to pay all fines and fees before voting.

Voters line up to cast their election ballot at a Cobb County polling station in Marietta, Georgia, October 13, 2020.
Elijah Nouvelage | Reuters

The history of voter suppression and how it's being played out today

Florida's "poll tax" on former felons points to a larger wave of new laws and policies that target Black voters and other communities of color, says Aden, who has testified before Congress about ongoing acts of voter suppression. 

"This is part of our history, frankly," she says. "If anyone understands our country, it is founded on this vision that only certain people should have a voice."

Before the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, Black slaves were counted as just three-fifths of a person for taxation and representation purposes. Five years later in 1870, Black men were granted the right to vote when the 15th Amendment was ratified. Fifty years after that, Black women were granted the right to vote with the 19th amendment in 1920 making it illegal to disenfranchise someone based on their sex. But, even with these laws in place, Black men and women were still blocked from voting due to Jim Crow laws that enforced confusing literacy tests and high poll taxes on Black citizens.

Years later, on March 17, 1965, lawmakers introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which fully granted Black people the right to vote. The act came just 10 days after "Bloody Sunday" occurred on March 7, 1965, where hundreds of people marched from Selma, Alabama to the state's capital of Montgomery to demand voting rights for all Black Americans, with many of them being beaten and assaulted by state troopers along the route.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is "one of the most successful pieces of legislation in our history," says Aden, but the fight to uphold its protections continue today, especially following the 2013 Shelby vs. Holder Supreme Court decision. 

"The Shelby decision immobilized the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which we refer to as Section 5," she says. "This was the provision of the Voting Rights Act that said certain states and jurisdictions, or jurisdictions within them, had to get pre-approved for every voting change before they could implement it. And, every voting change means every polling place change, any change to candidate qualifications, any change to eligibility requirements, or whether you need to provide an I.D."

The point of the law was to ensure that people of color were not having their political power limited, Aden explains. In 2006, Congress collected a record encompassing more than 15,000 pages showing that voter suppression still exists in many parts of the country. 

Since the Shelby vs. Holder decision in 2013, several forms of voter suppression have been on the rise, including voter purges — a flawed process that is supposed to clean up voter rolls by deleting names from the voter registration lists of people who have died, moved or became ineligible to vote. But in many states experts believe that voter purges have often included deleting the names of eligible voters.

Between 2006 and 2008, 12 million names were purged from voter rolls across the country, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice. Between 2014 and 2016, after the Shelby vs. Holder decision, that number rose to 16 million voters, with many of these purges happening in southern states that have a history of racial discrimination. In Georgia, for example, the report found that the state purged 1.5 million voters between the 2012 and 2016 elections, which is twice the number of voters purged between 2008 and 2012. 

In addition to voter purges, new and confusing voter ID laws and gerrymandering — in which boundaries for legislative districts are redrawn so that as many seats as possible are likely to be won by a particular party — are continuing to take place in an effort to suppress the voting process in Black and Brown communities.

In Georgia, where ongoing acts of voter suppression have been in the forefront of the news, county officials shut down 8% of the state's polling places and relocated nearly 40% of its precincts between 2012 and 2018. This resulted in Black Georgia voters being 20% more likely to miss elections because of the long distance they had to travel to polls compared to White voters, according to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. 

Desmond Meade talks to reporters outside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office before registering to vote after ex-felons regained their voting rights in the state Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Florida.
The Washington Post | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Impact of "polling taxes" and its link to the criminal justice system

As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million Americans are banned from voting due to felony disenfranchisement laws. Because of these laws, over 6.2% of adult Black Americans are disenfranchised, compared to 1.7% of the non-Black population, according to the latest data from research and advocacy organization The Sentencing Project.

While Amendment 4 helped to restore the voting rights of millions in Florida, the state's requirement that former felons pay off their fees is still keeping hundreds of thousands of eligible voters from the polls. In 2019, at least 30 states, including Florida, had laws that required former felons to pay at least some of their fines and fees before they could vote. 

"At the end of the day, it's an obstruction of democracy," says Meade. "And to me, it's larger than a poll tax. I don't want to even minimize it or reduce it to just being a poll tax. It is our state actually doing something to block the expansion of democracy, which is a sin."

Meade adds that rather than putting hurdles in the way to block people from voting, states should be "engaging in activities to encourage participation by every American citizen" and that participation should be free of charge.

"No state should ever force its citizens to choose between putting food on their kid's table and voting, or choose between paying rent or voting," he says. 

In Florida, experts estimate that more than 774,000 felons have legal financial obligations that they need to pay before they can vote.

"Felon disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts communities of color, specifically African American communities," says Meade. In 2020, more than one in seven Black Americans in seven states including Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia are disenfranchised due to felony charges, according to The Sentencing Project.

When thinking of felony charges, Meade says, most people think of the worst crimes that an individual can commit. But, in many states, he explains, you can get a felony offense for driving with a suspended license, burning a tire in public, trespassing on a construction site or catching a lobster whose tail is too short. In 2013, a Florida man was even arrested and charged with a felony for releasing balloons into the sky. 

In addition to states giving out felony charges for non-violent offenses, data proves that Black Americans are disproportionately targeted by an unfair criminal justice system. Black drivers, for example, are about 20% more likely to be stopped by police than White drivers, according to a 2020 study released by New York University. The study also found that once stopped, Black drivers were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be searched than their White peers, while they were also less likely to be carrying drugs, guns or other illegal contraband. 

When it comes to prison time, the United States Sentencing Commission found that between 2012 and 2016, Black men received sentences that were, on average, 19.1 times higher than White men who committed a similar crime. 

Meade, who voted for the first time in over 30 years in Florida's August 2020 primary, says it's long overdue for formerly incarcerated individuals to have their voting rights restored. 

Rep. John Lewis in Selma, Alabama.,on Feb. 14, 2015.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

What activists and organizations are doing to protect voter rights

In every congressional session since the Shelby vs. Holder decision in 2013, there has been a bill introduced to restore the protections under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, says Aden. 

The most recent bill, she says, is one named in honor of John Lewis, the former Georgia congressman who died in July, and was a civil rights leader who marched for voting rights alongside other protesters in Selma in 1965.

Overall, Aden says, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act "speaks to not just restoring the heart of the [1965] Voting Rights Act," but to "some of the progressive and democratic election administration practices that many of us have been pushing for, like same-day registration and automatic voter registration."

It also, she says, "gets at many [other] issues within our political process that don't really reflect that we are living in a modern democracy."

To ensure that action is taking place now so that formerly incarcerated individuals can vote in November, Meade, along with several other activists, are doing their part to help pay the outstanding fines and fees of felons in Florida. In July, James and his More Than a Vote initiative announced that they were donating $100,000 to Meade's organization to help former felons vote. Meade says that basketball star Michael Jordan also donated $500,000 to his organization's fund. 

Vick, who understands that his financial situation is far different than most other felons, says that supporting More Than a Vote's $100,000 donation was important to him, especially in these trying times where people are even more financially strapped due to the pandemic. 

In addition to donations from athletes and celebrities, Meade's organization also received $16 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in September, which will help to pay the fines and fees of nearly 32,000 Black and Hispanic voters in Florida with felony convictions and financial obligations.

While most people look at the "poll taxes" against former felons as a major setback, Meade says he's viewing it as "an opportunity to step up" and continue the work that he's already done. 

A few weeks ago, he says, he and his team were out in the community helping people pay off their fines and fees so they could register to vote when they met a woman from the east coast of Florida whose story stuck with him. 

"Right before we encountered her to register to vote, the doctor gave her six months to live," he says. "And as we were registering her, she started crying and talking about how for 24 years she's been wanting to vote, but never thought she would be able to because she had a substance abuse issue, and she was a convicted felon."

As she filled out her voter registration card, Meade says tears started to flow down her face, with organizers crying beside her. 

"When I hear stories like that, it reminds me of the many stories I've heard from people who would tell me they hope they can live long enough to see Amendment 4 passed," says Meade. "They hope they can live long enough to be able to feel what it feels like to be an American citizen." 

Video by: Alysha Webb

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