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Working to restore voting rights to returning citizens ahead of the general election

As the November election draws near and demonstrations for racial justice continue to unfold across the country, it is important to remember Black people in the United States are disenfranchised from voting because of previous criminal convictions at four times the rate of all other racial groups combined.  Despite recent efforts to eliminate it, we unfortunately continue to see this Jim Crow-era tactic used to suppress the voting rights of people in predominantly Black and Brown communities, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, where the SPLC focuses its work.

As the field director for the SPLC’s Voting Rights Restoration initiatives, I work throughout the Deep South to train communities on the rights restoration process in each state, build relationships with partner organizations, expand our coalition, create public education campaigns and advocate for inclusive re-enfranchisement policies.

I started my work in this field as a fellow for the Alabama Voting Rights Project to provide rights restoration services, train community leaders on the 2017 Definition of Moral Turpitude Act and the new rights restoration process it outlined and debunk the myth that a felony conviction in Alabama always means you cannot vote.

By passing the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, Alabama finally clarified which felonies, state or federal, will not disqualify Alabamians from voting. Those Alabamians can register to vote, even if told in the past they could not by officials. Tens of thousands of additional Alabamians may be eligible to restore their right to vote through a simple application to the state. 

Because Alabama officials did not inform citizens of the new 2017 law, many of those affected by it were not aware that they had the right to vote. What’s more, many others who were eligible to restore their voting rights would not have been able to navigate the state’s confusing, overly bureaucratic rights restoration process without our assistance. This is something that is happening not only in Alabama, but across the country and particularly in the South.

Florida is the latest example. In 2018 Amendment 4 passed with the support of nearly 65 percent of voters. The amendment restored voting rights to 1.4 million people with prior felony convictions – except those convicted for murder or a felony sexual offense – once they have completed their sentences. But in a stunning rebuke to public will, the Florida Legislature stepped in and passed SB 7066, which undermined Amendment 4’s reach and required those with felony convictions to pay all outstanding fines, fees, court costs, and restitution before they can register to vote. This has led to confusion and fear among many Floridians about whether or not they should register – or even qualify – to vote.

While the SPLC filed a lawsuit to roll back SB 7066, there are also efforts by local groups to assist people in maneuvering through the process as it stands.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which helped to lead the charge on Amendment 4, has created a campaign to help individuals with felony convictions that owe fines, fees and restitution to pay off those obligations. Similarly, the League of Women Voters of Florida is pairing citizens with pro bono attorneys to assist them in determining what they owe the legal system.  

Earlier this year, I worked with Chainless Change, a nonprofit led by an impacted citizen, Marq Mitchell, to register impacted citizens. The campaign, with only a staff of seven returning citizens, has registered nearly 700 Floridians within five weeks and helped us better understand some of the challenges that citizens with felony convictions face trying to register to vote in Florida.

But these efforts only tell half the story.

Many people who have previous convictions don’t trust the system – or they feel as though their vote doesn’t count. Many face day-to-day struggles that create other barriers to voting. These are compounded by the fact that communities of color have some of the lowest performing schools, lowest paying jobs, and lowest health care coverage rates.

When talking to these potential voters, I highlight that voting gives a person the power to help elect officials that will directly impact our daily lives – school board and city council members, county commissioners, judges, sheriffs and others. I try my best to help individuals understand that political participation remains one of the strongest and most effective ways of addressing systemic racism. 

I know it’s not an easy ask. As a Black man born and raised in the South, the criminal justice system has always been something lurking around my community’s head, serving as a trap for people of color – a living reminder of Jim Crow oppression. But working at SPLC reengaging and mobilizing our communities in the voting process has given me hope that we can help change this system if we commit to engage in our civic obligation.

Our work is far from done. We will continue to fight for individuals who have been blocked from voting by felony disenfranchisement laws and empower them to feel as though they are once again a full citizen in our democracy. Working together in all fronts we can make the promise of racial and social justice a reality for all of us.

Photo by The Washington Post/Getty Images