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“No American citizen should be intimidated into not registering to vote”

Updated: May 9, 2022

Florida Rights Restoration Coalition leader fears state's bully tactics could prevent returning citizens from registering to vote this election season.

Desmond Meade, right, and Neil Volz of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition challenge the state to develop a database to track court fines so returning citizens will know what they owe and can register to vote with confidence.

At a Friday press conference, Desmond Meade, the executive director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), and Neil Volz, its political director, challenged the state to establish a database that would help residents, including former felons, verify their eligibility to vote.

They were calling attention to reports that returning citizens (the acceptable term for those who have returned to society from prison than the stigmatizing “ex-con”) had committed voter fraud.

In Alachua County, 10 current and former inmates at the county jail have been charged with voter fraud and casting a ballot in the 2020 election even though it was the county’s Supervisor of Elections who had registered them through a drive organized at the jail. Separately, in Jacksonville, a convicted sex offender was also charged with voter fraud when he received a voter registration card after applying for state assistance, and proceeded to cast a ballot in the 2020 election.

As of 2019, it’s legal for people convicted of nonviolent felonies (but not murder or sex crimes) to vote. With support from 64 percent of the public, Amendment 4 restored voting rights to 1.4 million returning citizens who had completed their sentences, parole and probation. Prior to the amendment, former felons were permanently barred from voting unless the state’s Board of Clemency restored their rights.

After Amendment 4 went into effect on Jan. 8, 2019, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill requiring former felons to pay off all court fines and fees before they could have their voting rights restored. Critics decried that as a poll tax, reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

During the press conference, Meade slammed Florida for its “failure,” three years after the passage of Amendment 4, to establish a central database that would calculate what returning citizens owed. He also sharply criticized law enforcement officials for pursuing the returning citizens, who relied on government information for their decision to register to vote and then vote by mail.

“No one is trying to get over on the government,” said the longtime activist who hails from Windermere. “If people are actually relying on the state and have an honest belief that they’re registered to vote, to even try to prosecute them is, to me, a form of intimidation and a waste of taxpayer’s dollars.”

Meade said he was concerned that these events could have a “chilling effect” on voter registration among returning citizens across the state. So far, no such incidents have been reported in Orange County.

“The state should not be trying to intimidate returning citizens from registering or voting. What they should be doing is encouraging every eligible citizen to register and participate in our democracy …” Meade said.

FRRC announced it formed a task force to defend against charges and arrests stemming from eligibility confusion. The organization also plans a county-to-county trip throughout Florida to help distribute funds to pay off fines and fees.

“We don’t believe any American citizen should be forced to choose between putting food on the table and being able to participate in our democracy,” said Meade.

Check out these highlights from the press conference.

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