On the night it finally happened, Raquel Wright peeled off the road on her way home and went to her sister’s house in Vero Beach, Florida. It didn’t matter that no one was home – Wright went inside, headed straight to the television, not bothering to turn on any lights. Watching the election results crawl across the screen, she finally saw the number she was waiting for. She broke into tears, sobbing in the pitch-black house.
About 100 miles north-west, in Orlando, Desmond Meade felt like “a ton of bricks” had been lifted off his shoulders. For nearly two decades, he and other activists had been pushing – sometimes quixotically – to end Florida’s longstanding policy of preventing anyone with a felony conviction from voting. First implemented in the 19th century, the policy was used as a cudgel of white supremacy during the Jim Crow era to disenfranchise African Americans after they formally gained the right to vote. By 2016, it had become one of the most potent forms of voter suppression in the United States, blocking up to 1.4 million people in Florida – including more than 21% of eligible Black voters – from being able to vote. Among them were Wright and Meade.
On election night in 2018, Meade and Wright would find out that 64.5% of Floridians had voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to end the policy. More than 5.1 million people – more than voted for Ron DeSantis, the Republican elected governor that evening – were in favor of the measure. The referendum – often referred to as amendment 4 – was one of the most dramatic expansions of the right to vote in US history since the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But more than a year and a half after amendment 4 went into effect, hundreds of thousands of people still remain blocked from voting.
The promise of amendment 4 remains largely unfulfilled because Republicans in Florida moved aggressively to gut it. They passed a law that put insurmountable hurdles in front of those with felony convictions and required them to navigate a byzantine bureaucracy to get their voting rights back (one county official testified in May that records from crimes decades ago had been kept on index cards in shoeboxes). As of late May, Florida’s top election official had tens of thousands of pending registrations from people with felony convictions, but had yet to fully review a single one.
In a searing 125-page opinion earlier this year, a federal judge wrote that Republicans had created an “administrative train wreck” and a “pay-to-vote system”.
“To me, it was a poll tax,” said Betty Riddle, a 63-year-old woman from Sarasota who was last in prison in 2008. “It’s supposed to stop us from voting. They’re trying everything in their power to stop us.”
The Florida legislature has a history of meddling with constitutional amendments, and there was never much doubt that the Republicans who control the body were going to try to have a say with amendment 4. “We knew that there was going to be blowback,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the Florida chapter of the League of Women Voters, who pushed the amendment.
Some of the language in the amendment was ambiguous and after it passed, local election officials across Florida were begging the state for guidance. The measure said most convicted felons were eligible to vote “upon completion of all terms of sentence”, including parole and probation, but wasn’t clear when a sentence was considered complete.
When lawmakers returned to Tallahassee in the spring of 2019, however, it quickly became clear they were uninterested in simply clarifying the ambiguities. They wanted to render it toothless.
In the Florida house of representatives, Jamie Grant, a Republican, pushed through a bill that required anyone with a felony conviction to repay all fines, fees, court costs and restitution before someone could vote again.
The proposal would leave a significant number of people disenfranchised. In Florida, courts depend on fees to operate and those who interact with the system can get tagged with a dizzying array of costs. The state doesn’t really expect to ever collect the money: between 2013 and 2018, courts levied $1bn in felony fines, but Florida clerks of court only reported collecting an average of 19% of the costs each year, according to an analysis by the Miami radio station WLRN.
The legislature deliberately chose to ignore the reality that many people would be unable to repay the costs that accumulate in court, said Ashley Thomas, Florida state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy group that closely tracks the costs of the criminal justice system.
While 30 states require convicted felons to repay court debts before they can vote again, there was a provision in Grant’s bill that was particularly cruel. It blocked people from voting even in cases where their debts had been converted to a civil lien, a practice judges frequently use when someone cannot pay. If someone has completed prison, parole and probation and all they still owe is a civil lien, they are generally considered done with their criminal sentence, said Stanford Blake, a retired judge from Miami.
The provision was “uniquely harmful”, said Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. It would block people like Wright, 46, from voting. Convicted of drug trafficking in 2011 – she was arrested for selling oxycodone pills to an undercover police officer – Wright was sentenced to three years in prison and assessed a mandatory $50,000 fine. The judge in Wright’s case converted her debt to a civil lien the day she was sentenced to prison.
But under Grant’s bill, Wright was blocked from voting until she repaid all of the $50,000. She currently makes $150 a week.
One analysis found there are around 774,000 people in Florida disenfranchised because they owe money as part of their felony sentence – often more than $1,000. The study found Black Floridians with felony convictions were more likely to be blocked from voting because of outstanding debt. Meanwhile, people with felony convictions face severe barriers to getting a job. “Make a way for me to gainfully secure a job to repay those fees and fines,” Wright said.
Grant’s proposal took a narrower view on what constitutes completion of a sentence than the people who practice in criminal court. Blake said he could not recall a single instance in more than a dozen years on the criminal bench when someone objected to a criminal sentence ending because someone still owed fines and fees.
Yet DeSantis signed a finalized version of the proposal into law at the end of June in 2019. Hours later, civil rights groups filed a slew of lawsuits against the state on behalf of Wright and 16 other people with felony convictions arguing that Republicans had essentially created a poll tax, an outlawed device long used to block African Americans from the polls.
If there was ever going to be someone who had a shot at overcoming the obstacles the Florida legislature put in place, it might have been Riddle, the Sarasota woman last convicted of a felony more than a decade ago. She works at a public defender’s office and after the new law went into effect in 2019, she was able to use the court systems she had access to through work to look up how much she owed.
But the charges she could see only went back to the 1980s and she knew there were some from earlier than that. She called another county to find out what had happened to her earlier charges, but was told they were so old they were probably boxed up or put on a disc. As hard as she tried, Riddle could not figure out how much she owed. “It was really impossible,” said Riddle, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the law.
Riddle’s experience underscored a central feature of the system Florida Republicans had set up: it is nearly impossible for many people to find out exactly how much they owe. Courts can order defendants to submit money to a wide range of agencies, including the clerk of court, the department of corrections and prosecutors, said Carlos Martinez, public defender in Miami-Dade county. Debt collection agencies can charge up to 40% fees to collect payments. There is no centralized place where someone can look up how much money they owe and how much money they have paid towards overcoming the debt.
It’s supposed to stop us from voting. They’re trying everything in their power to stop us
“You can get a different number when you check the database you can access remotely from the internet versus when you call up and ask for how much you owe,” said Andrew Warren, the state attorney in Hillsborough county. “It’s not like it’s a simple number like what your credit card bill is.” In Hillsborough county, for example, before officials kept records on computers, they kept payment receipts on index cards in shoe boxes.
“It’s a nightmare of their own making,” said Ebenstein, who represents some of the plaintiffs in the suit challenging the law.
As of late May, the division of elections – responsible for verifying which people with felony convictions can vote – had 85,000 registrations to review. And just months ahead of the election, it hadn’t completed review of a single one. Maria Matthews, the head of the division, said the state only had the capacity to review 57 registrations a day. In testimony earlier this year, she struggled to explain the processes the state was using to implement the law.
Last fall, US district judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary order in the lawsuit saying that Florida could not block Wright, Riddle and the other 15 plaintiffs in the lawsuit if they genuinely could not pay.
That ruling meant that Wright could vote in Florida’s March primary. For the last few years, she had gone with her family to vote, but stayed in the car when they went inside to cast their ballots. When she went inside the voting booth, her daughter couldn’t help but ask why her mom couldn’t stop smiling.
“It’s like the scarlet letter is slowly being peeled off my chest,” said Wright, who still gets goosebumps when she thinks about voting. “When I got that privilege back. I honored it to my heart and to my soul.”
Hinkle issued his final decision in late May and struck down the Republican restrictions on amendment 4. He was unsparing in his criticism of the system Florida Republicans had set up. While a state can require convicted felons to repay money they owe before they can vote again, Hinkle wrote, it cannot require repayment from those who simply cannot afford to pay. Florida, he wrote, was conditioning the right to vote on a “tax by any other name”.
The judge also painstakingly walked through the cases of the plaintiffs in the case, showing how even state officials were unable to figure out how much money was owed. In one of the cases, involving a pastor named Clifford Tyson, multiple officials had spent 12 to 15 hours trying to figure out how much he owed in a decades-old conviction and still were unable to explain inconsistencies in his records.
“Individual victims may have died or moved to parts unknown, and corporate victims may have gone out of business or been merged into other entities,” he wrote. “There may be nobody to pay, even if a felon is willing and able to make a payment. Insisting on payment of amounts long forgotten seems an especially poor basis for denying the franchise.”
The ruling seemed like a sweeping victory for the 774,000 people blocked from voting. But soon after, Florida lawyers appealed Hinkle’s ruling to the US court of appeals for the 11th circuit, and asked them to pause Hinkle’s order while the appeal was pending. The court agreed to do so, and offered no explanation for its ruling.
In July, the plaintiffs made an emergency request to the US supreme court, asking them to let Hinkle’s ruling go into effect ahead of Florida’s fast approaching 18 August primary. The supreme court declined to do so, and like the 11th circuit, offered no explanation for its reasoning. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the supreme court’s decision meant that Florida could block people from voting “simply because they are poor”.
The night Wright found out about the court’s ruling blocking her from voting yet again, she cried for hours.
“It’s like when is it ever going to end? I’ve paid my penance,” she said.
Desmond Meade’s group, meanwhile, has started a fund aiming to raise $3m to help people pay off their fines and fees and had more than 3,600 active applicants as of May (hundreds of people have applied for assistance, only to find out they are actually legally eligible to vote). A voting rights organization started by LeBron James, the NBA megastar, recently announced an organization he started focused on voting rights would also help contribute funds.
Oral argument at the 11th circuit is scheduled for 18 August, which means that even if the court rules in favor of Wright and the other plaintiffs, there will be a very tight deadline to educate Floridians with felony convictions before November.
But Wright is holding on to a thread of optimism. She still thinks about the Sundays she and her daughter would spend standing outside the Ben & Jerry’s urging people to sign petitions to put amendment 4 on the ballot. She would try to persuade voters to sign the petitions by convincing them that not voting was essentially a vote.
“If it wasn’t important, they wouldn’t be fighting it,” she said. “Understand that they’re fighting to silence you because your vote has power. That’s the only thing that’s keeping me going.”