by Panagioti Tsolkas
Local organizers with the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC) invite you to volunteer in an effort to find and register newly eligible voters in Alachua and surrounding counties. Training and volunteer orientation occurs Monday through Friday, 2 – 3pm at the FLIC office in the Seagle Building, 4th Floor, 408 West University Ave.
It has been said before that if voting changed anything it would be illegal. Although the sources of that quote has been disputed (was it Emma Goldman? Mark Twain? Some meme-making troll?) the sentiment is understood and it became popularized for a reason. People are skeptical about the government, on most all sides of the political spectrum (yes there are more than two sides!) But the concept of voting being illegal is not just hyperbole or anarchists rhetoric.
Voting it is still illegal for millions of people in the United States, simply because they are criminalized based largely on their economic status in the world. Undocumented immigrants, victims of the drug war, and generally, people on the receiving end of a centuries-long process attempting to implement and maintain white supremacy. There is an ongoing effort to keep these people away from the ballot box, despite all of its flaws, with a pretty clear intention of securing their exclusion from political engagement.
Voting is rarely regarded as the sharpest tool in the box of social change strategy. But even the most cynical activists among us should be able to admit that voting rights campaigns have played a major role in many pivotal, defining moments of struggles for social, economic and environmental justice in this country.
One of those moments has undeniably been unfolding over the last year as an amendment to the Florida Constitution passed by ballot initiative, known as Amendment 4 on the November 2018 ballot, restored voting rights to an estimated million-and-a-half people.
Now the challenge of finding and registering these newly eligible voters has begun. People continue to register to vote with little or no guidance from state officials. Rather than encouraging previously disenfranchised people to register, the current governor has has assisted in sowing doubt and confusion.
For the first time in a century, the majority of criminalized people in the hotly contested political terrain of this state, who have seen the worst of the system, will have an ability to weigh in on races from president and congressional representatives all the way down to the sheriffs, state attorneys and local judges who may have arrested, prosecuted or sentenced them.
The constitutional amendment wasn’t perfect, most notably in its exempting of people based on the nature of their charges (rather than accepting that the labels of people’s criminal convictions shouldn’t define who they are or what they may become) and its use of a “second chances” arguments that implies anyone should be disenfranchised in the first place (as opposed to other countries, such as Canada, which views voting as a fundamental right rather than a privilege, leaving ballot access intact even for current prisoners.)
That said, Amendment 4 was one of the single largest instances of voter enfranchisement in the U.S. since the Reconstruction era of the 1870s, women’s suffrage in 1919, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the case of Reconstruction, felony disenfranchisement laws were implemented by public officials who made no secret of their racist goals. In Florida, during an 1868 debate, one lawmaker linked felony disenfranchisement to preventing the state from becoming “n—–ized.”
To be certain, registering these million-plus voters across FL is not the end of the movement, but it is a major stepping off point for future organizing that can more effectively include the voices of criminalized people. It could finally bring an end to the tough-on-crime politics that has torn families apart for generations, trapping entire communities into poverty and desperation.
As can be expected in Florida’s current political climate, the Governor and State Legislature have tried their best to undermine the effort to re-enfranchise these long-suppressed votes. In the 2019 legislative session, Republican politicians attempted to add language that would limit registration based on additional charges as well as the completion of outstanding financial obligations—that is, fines, fees, and restitution arising from someone’s sentence.
Ultimately, new legislation known as SB 7066 passed including the requirement of fines and fees, becoming effective July 1, 2019. Several non-profit organizations promptly responded with a federal lawsuit which likened the requirement to a poll tax aimed at limiting voter participation, specifically impacting people of color who are disproportionately criminalized.
So far, the federal judge, Robert Hinkle, has issued a preliminary ruling in favor of re-enfranchisement, and against the State’s voter suppression effort, which he called an “administrative nightmare.”
For now, relief is limited to 17 of the individual plaintiffs. But the court affirmed—for everyone—the constitutional principle that the right to vote cannot depend on a person’s wealth. The court also ruled that the State must create a clear and fair process through which Florida’s other impacted voters can demonstrate an inability to pay outstanding financial obligations and vote.
The court also indicated that it is the federal court’s role to ensure that this financial obligation requirement does not violate the U.S. Constitution, despite efforts by state officials to force the issue into state court.
To learn about upcoming elections, you visit the webpage of your local County Supervisor of Elections, and County Clerks of Courts may be resources to find out some information about outstanding financial obligations.
If you or someone you know is impacted by SB7066, they can also contact advocates like the Florida NAACP (info@FLNAACP.com) or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you want to find out more about volunteering on voter registration in North/Central Florida, contact local FLIC organizers at: (954) 980-0130