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Floridians With Felony Convictions Must Pay Fines Before They Can Vote

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Florida's Republican legislature appears to be succeeding in its drive to prevent people with felony convictions from voting. The people of Florida voted otherwise. Two years ago, by an overwhelming margin, Floridians overturned the state's lifelong ban on voting for most people who were convicted of felonies and are done serving time. Then, Florida lawmakers stepped in. The legislators barred people with felony convictions from voting if they still owe outstanding fines. Danny Rivero of WLRN reports on the result.

DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: The big promise when voters passed a ballot initiative in 2018 was that more than a million Floridians would get the right to vote back. But after the state connected voting with making payments, less than 10,000 ex-felons are expected to vote in November, according to research from Georgetown Law Center. That's because the majority of people can't afford to pay what they owe, even if a tiny percent of them can.

DESHAUN JONES: I've paid all my fines. I have paid my debt to society, and now I'm able to vote.

RIVERO: Deshaun Jones came out of Florida State Prison six years ago where she was serving time for drug charges. But when I met her in August, she was marching to the polls in Miami to vote in Florida's primary election.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Get out and go vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Get out and go vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Get out and go vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Get out and go vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Get out and go vote.

RIVERO: Jones is a social worker now. And for the occasion, she's wearing a homemade black-and-pink shirt that celebrates how far she's made it.

JONES: So my shirt says she's been reformed. I have DC number, which is Dade County Corrections, crossed out, and I have my voter registration number checked. So no longer a felon. In my eyes, I'm not.

RIVERO: A few Florida counties have come up with programs that allow judges to modify someone's sentence to allow them to vote, even if money is still owed. When the programs first launched, there was a lot of promise that they could help people register to vote. Democratic State Senator Jason Pizzo helped create one of these programs in Miami-Dade County a year ago. And he says the biggest problem with the program is that so few people have used it.

JAZON PIZZO: Less than 100 people - of their cases have been modified in the largest county in Florida, in the third-largest state in the country.

RIVERO: Pizzo says there's more pro bono attorneys that have offered to help with cases than people who have called for help.

PIZZO: Is it apathy? Or is it beating down people and, basically, making them feel so disheartened and disenchanted with a system that's like - I give up, you know? I just give up. I don't want to engage. I don't know.

RIVERO: A fund to help would-be voters was created last year and has raised millions so far. But even those charitable contributions are facing pushback from the state. After billionaire Michael Bloomberg announced he would help donate nearly $20 million for the effort, Florida's attorney general, Ashley Moody, asked the FBI and state police to investigate. In a letter, she cited laws against election bribery.

DANIELLE LANG: It's hard to not see this as a bit of voter intimidation.

RIVERO: Danielle Lang is an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center. She represented plaintiffs in the federal court case. And she says Florida is trying to scare people away from accepting help for paying off their fines and fees.

LANG: There is no criminal investigation to be had here. The law is about paying people to vote or paying people in order to induce them to vote. Instead, the generosity of fellow citizens is allowing individuals to become eligible to vote. Most of us don't have to pay to become eligible to vote, but unfortunately these folks do.

RIVERO: Betty Riddle was a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit. And now she's scrambling to come up with the money she needs to be able to vote in November.

BETTY RIDDLE: It doesn't make sense, and that's what frustrates me. I mean, it's unbelievable what these people will go through to stop us from voting. I mean, you won. We've got to pay.

RIVERO: Riddle says despite all the legal rulings, she's going to keep trying to get her voting rights back, even if it takes until the next presidential election.

For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING'S "WEST WINDOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.