The red-colored voting rights restoration bus wound its way through South Florida, making stops in West Palm Beach and Miami.
On the first stop, numerous elected officials and voting rights advocates spoke in West Palm Beach and, on the stops on Friday, musician John Legend spoke in Miami-Dade County courtroom and a block party was held later that day in Miami Gardens.
The tour is supporting Amendment Four, which Florida voters approved in November 2018. Supporters of voting rights for all have accused The Florida Legislature and the governor of implementing a “poll tax,” requiring ex-felons to pay any fees, fines and restitution first.
Voting rights activist and former felon Desmond Meade, who also is the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, spoke at the bus stop in West Palm Beach on Thursday, Nov. 7, saying that the stops marked the one-year anniversary of the passage of Amendment Four.
“Amendment Four was passed by Florida voters,” said Meade, “not out of fear or hate but out of love. They believe that Florida should be a second chance state. Once our debt is paid in full, we deserve to be treated as every other citizen. We should be able to vote again.”
Meade also said that despite what was transpiring at the state and local levels, he and his supporters saw opportunities instead of obstacles. As far as Senate Bill 7066, Meade said, he, and others, were not there to talk about the loophole but to talk about the opportunities presented by the law.
“We have a clear pathway to allow them to participate,” said Meade. “That is something worth celebrating. No American citizen should be shut out from voting.”
John Legend lent support Friday as 18 former felons were granted the right to vote in what Miami officials called a simple and streamlined process.
The ceremony was meant to show that ex-felons can regain their voting rights, despite the Legislature’s law that put in financial requirements. The issue landed before the Florida Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments earlier this week.
Legend said he backs efforts to allow former felons to fully regain their place in society.
“It’s so beautiful to see,” Legend told reporters. “So many people take it for granted, this right to vote. When you lose it, it makes you realize how important it is.”
“It just shows you how important democracy is, how precious democracy is,” he added. “It’s important for all of us to be included in that.”
The Grammy winner held a fundraiser Thursday night for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which is mounting a statewide effort to help former prisoners obtain the right to vote.
One by one, the former felons came before Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie for brief hearings to ensure they are qualified to regain the right to vote. One of them was Andre Williams, 63, who had an aggravated assault conviction on his record.
“I’m happy. Very, very happy,” he said. “It’s what I fought for, forever.”
Carlos Martinez, the Miami-Dade public defender, said people seeking restoration of voting rights can apply through the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition website and most would not need to come to court. If they do owe fines or restitution, Martinez said there are ways to settle those debts.
“We are all working with them to see those amounts are paid,” he said.
Down in Miami Gardens later that day, former felons were among the people who took part in a community block party. Ijamyn Gray, a former felon, said he would be voting in 2020 and had lost the right to vote for many years. Gray said he was thankful that he was able to begin a new life and be a contributing member to society.
“It hurts our ability to get a job and housing,” said Gray. “I’m glad I can start a new chapter of my life.”
Dexter Gunder, who also was at the block party, said that he lost the right to vote for many years due to some changes in his life where he lost his job and was writing bad checks to pay for food and other necessities. Gunder is looking forward to voting in the 2020 election cycle. Gunder said he goes all the way from Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade and everywhere else to educate people on how and why they needed to vote.
“I’m all over everything from Palm Beach County to Key West,” he said.
Meade said the organization is planning a bus tour to raise awareness through all 67 Florida counties.
“We want to encourage everyone to participate in our democracy, because that’s what makes us vibrant,” Meade said. “There is hope. There is a pathway forward. We are hoping to replicate this throughout the state.”
The bright red bus features images of former felons, one carrying a sign that reads, “When a debt is paid, it’s paid.” It also has the slogan, “Our vote, our voice, our time” on the side.