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Students Work to Inform Florida Returning Citizens of Voting Rights

The preamble to Florida’s state constitution is embossed on the rotunda of the State House in Tallahassee. (Photo courtesy of Florida League of Women Voters)
By David Ertischek ’01

In 2018, Floridians passed the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, which returned voting eligibility to an estimated 1.4 million people with felony convictions once they complete all the terms of their sentence. The law went into effect in January 2019.

The initiative passed with 64.5 percent of the vote, but Florida Amendment 4, as it’s commonly referred to, has been met with opposition by right wing politicians.

“Historically, Florida is the most notorious state for using criminal convictions to disenfranchise minority and poor communities,” said Associate Professor of Journalism Roger House. “Since the end of slavery, Florida has engaged in the use of arrest and conviction to stifle black and brown voting power.”

Amendment 4 is one of the largest expansions of suffrage in the modern era, said House. Recently, House penned an opinion piece in The Hill, expressing the need for a “Florida Summer Project” to help register all of the formerly incarcerated residents who are now eligible to vote.

To combat opposition, students in House’s History of the Alternative Press class undertook a project to aide those with newly restored voting eligibility. In groups, students worked with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Florida (LWVFL) to help locate and educate people about their new voting prospects.

During his research, Paul Ross ’19 contacted four vocational schools in Hillsborough County to learn if people with felony convictions are allowed to attend the schools, and whether those schools provide any resources related to the restoration of voting rights.

“Of the four vocational schools I contacted, two of the four were able to give me detailed answers regarding what ex-felons need to do in order to attend those institutions and if those schools provide information,” said Ross. “At this time the [schools don’t] have a policy set in stone regarding resources for ex-felons in relation to voting, but counselors may do so on an individual basis.”

And while Ross learned that Hillsborough County is willing to help formerly incarcerated citizens exercise their right to vote, there isn’t a grassroots voting rights movement in the county, or a system in place, designated to help those citizens with voting.

The students’ work is being shared with LWVFL’s Amendment 4 coordinator, which delighted the organization’s president, Patricia Brigham.

“I think it’s incredibly heartening that students from elsewhere in the country, who don’t live in Florida [are helping] because it’s an important constitutional right,” said Brigham. “Florida is long overdue to restore voting rights to ex-felons who have paid their debts to society. We are very encouraged and delighted that students at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts participated.”

Senior Shirley Wu’s group surveyed Miami-Dade County’s three correctional institutions. But only one was willing to answer students’ questions.

“For the other two, they either refused to answer most of the questions or [hung up on me] halfway through the interviews,” said Wu.

She added she supports Amendment 4 because, “It gives ex-felons an equal chance to voice for themselves after they’ve served their time.”

Ross also echoed support for the amendment, adding that involving more people in the political process, regardless of background, shows progress and a willingness to increase political literacy.

“The United States has the highest amount of incarcerated people of any country, many of them people of color, people with lower incomes, and/or, people with disabilities,” said Ross. “While having a right to vote is not everything a person who was incarcerated needs when returning to society, it is a stepping stone to better things in the future.”

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