A recent study estimated that 4.6 million Americans will not be able to vote in this year's midterm elections due to a current or previous felony conviction. The study also found that African Americans of voting age are over three times more likely to be disenfranchised due to a felony than non-African Americans - about one out of every 19 citizens in the U.S.
In the state of Florida, despite reforms in recent years, over a million citizens of voting age cannot vote, the most of any state in the country.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a grassroots membership organization based in Florida, has been advocating to expand the rights of returning citizens. The organization led the ballot initiative campaign for “Amendment 4”, the 2018 constitutional amendment approved in Florida that restored voting rights for 1.4 million people with felony convictions.
“Our overall goal is to create a safer and cleaner democracy for our returning citizens to have a voice,” said Organizing Director, Marquis McKenzie.
McKenzie said in addition to advocating for increased access to voting for those with felony convictions, the organization has been working to increase voter participation in this year’s election primarily through community walks and phone banking.
Volunteers, some who are returning citizens themselves, are engaging in conversations about why voting is important and providing potential voters with information that can help them or someone they know who has a felony conviction learn about their voting status.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), in all but three states or jurisdictions, people with felony convictions lose the right to vote for some period of time. In some states returning citizens can have their voting rights restored automatically after their release or upon completion of parole and probation.
However, Florida is part of the eleven states that limit restoration of voting rights only to specific felonies and may require additional action before voting rights can be restored. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming.
“When you talk about reclaiming your vote, it's just continuing to exercise your right to vote. And if you can't vote, encouraging someone else to go vote on your behalf,” said McKenzie.
The FRRC has partnered with BET’s ReclaimYourVote#22 campaign to elevate their efforts to increase civic participation for this year’s midterm elections.
Since “Amendment 4” was passed, returning citizens in Florida have still faced barriers getting their voting rights fully restored due to heavy financial burdens. Florida citizens must pay all court ordered fines and fees before getting access to the ballot. The Sentencing Project reports an estimated 934,500 Floridians who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised because they cannot afford these monetary penalties. Since 2019, the FRRC has raised $30 million to pay for fines and fees for over 40,000 individuals to help them become eligible to vote.
In addition to expanding access to the electoral process, McKenzie, who is a returning citizen, said FRRC advocates for issues such as better access to housing and education which he said are some of the greatest challenges for formerly incarcerated citizens.
“Housing is bad for everyone. But when you talk about returning citizens we still yet to have access to housing,” said McKenzie who added that formerly incarcerated citizens often can’t list their names on housing applications or often face rejections.
The organization also has partnerships across the country to collaborate on key issues. McKenzie said the organization is making a big push during the month of October and up until Election Day to get-out-the-vote for the midterm elections on November 8th. And regardless of whether they are speaking to a returning citizen or not, McKenzie said the greatest desire is to increase voter participation across the board.
“Despite your race, your party affiliation - just get out and vote. It's the most important message that we want everyone to know.”
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is encouraging your participation in the #ReclaimYourVote2022 campaign by going to their website where you can register to vote or check out resources from partners across the U.S to learn if you’re eligible.
Visit Reclaim Your Vote: Your Voice, Your Power, Our Democracy for more information.
Visit vote.gov to register to vote, check your registration status, and find voter registration deadlines.