I woke up early on Jan. 8, the very first day that I was eligible to vote again in Florida. I arrived at the Lee County elections office before the doors even opened. The staff helped me fill out the paperwork, my hands shaking. My mom, who’d encouraged me to take this step, came along. When I was officially registered, she hugged me. We both cried. I hadn’t cast a ballot since 2008. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much my vote meant to me. I was 30 years old.
For years, the opportunity felt totally out of reach. My 2010 felony conviction for drug possession took over so many other aspects of my life, like where I could find a job or rent an apartment — voting was yet another one. Florida had some of the harshest laws in the country, disenfranchising ex-offenders for life unless they sought clemency. The clemency process takes years, and the governor said no far more often than he said yes. I shoved the possibility out of my mind.
That all changed in November, when an overwhelming majority of voters passed a ballot measure automatically restoring voting rights to former offenders. Amendment 4 gave nearly 1.5 million people our voices back. After that change to the state constitution, the rate of new registrations more than doubled.
Then, this past spring, Republican lawmakers put a huge obstacle in our path. The law they passed will require that people with felony convictions pay all court fees, fines and restitution before they’re deemed eligible to vote. When it takes effect on Monday, I will be erased from the voter rolls. That’s because, according to the county clerk’s office, I have an outstanding balance of $880 from 10 years ago.
As the judge ordered, I spent one year in jail and completed four years of probation. On top of that, I owed thousands of dollars in fines and fees, including prosecution and investigative costs, and the cost of my own probation supervision. Florida is one of many states that make defendants and offenders pay for steps of the criminal justice system that used to be free, from using a public defender to wearing a court-ordered electronic monitoring device. This burden usually falls on the poor.
Over the years, I’ve struggled to pay down this debt. The court said I could work some of it off through community service, paid at $10 an hour. I chipped away at the balance for hundreds of hours, serving dinner at the Salvation Army and doing office work for a mental health and addiction clinic. Since my driver’s license was suspended, I took the bus and walked everywhere. I borrowed what I could from friends and family, who could barely afford it themselves and needed to be repaid in turn.
I’ve served my time and have done everything I can to turn my life around. I got a bartending job, one of the few opportunities available to people with criminal records. I started taking courses in exercise and nutrition to eventually become a personal trainer, since fitness is also a relatively open industry. Still, the government won’t consider my sentence complete.
I’m a single mother with student loans. It’s difficult enough to make ends meet — I can’t afford the $880 that stands between me and my vote. Even if some miracle happened and a pile of cash magically appeared, I’m not sure that I could pay the fine with a clear conscience. I have a child to take care of and too many other obligations. Does that mean I don’t deserve the franchise that almost every other citizen gets? Whatever mistakes I made when I was young — and whatever my money situation is now — I’m still an American. Withholding the ballot, based on someone’s ability to pay, feels no different from a poll tax.
The new law has crushed the hopes of hundreds of thousands of people in situations like mine. Some owe millions that they can’t imagine ever repaying; others owe a few hundred that they just can’t take on. Florida is notorious for charging insanely high fines and fees to run its criminal justice system: more than $1 billion in 2018 alone. Its statutes list 115 fees and surcharges. (Other states have anywhere between 20 and 50 such fees on the books.) The state government is, to put it lightly, inconsistent about collecting: it has “minimal collections expectations” for 83 percent of its outstanding debt. As for restitution — money to compensate victims of crimes — no agencies track those debts or payments. Some ex-offenders have no idea how much they owe.
The first and last time I voted, I was 18 years old, and Barack Obama was running for president. Now it’s my local vote that really matters to me: I want a say in the education system where my daughter attends middle school; I want to protect the state-funded health care that she depends on. My vote isn’t just for me — it’s for my family’s future. Now, I’m facing the prospect of even more elections where I have to stand aside, helpless, while others make decisions for us.
Ex-offenders already face huge challenges to reentering society. Last year, by almost 2 to 1, our fellow Floridians said that we should be included in society, and that our opinions should be heard. It’s wrong to make money a barrier to our becoming full citizens.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.
Read more from Outlook: