Former prisoners deserve the right to vote

People like me who have served time in prison and return to their communities should have the right to vote. Instead, we continue to be prisoners to unjust laws. We’ve traded our prison cells for systematic confinement from the voting booth. Gaining my right to vote after I’ve completed a sentence shouldn’t be up for debate, but sadly it is. The felony disenfranchisement law in Florida has a devastating effect on the lives of those who have been incarcerated and the communities we reside in.  

Advancement Project’s national office report, “Democracy Disappeared: How Florida Silences the Black Vote through Felony Disenfranchisement,” paints a picture of systematic voter suppression in highly populated Black communities in Florida. It features case studies of some of my fellow formerly incarcerated Floridians and myself who are directly affected by the inability to vote. Our stories highlight the injustice of these policies and the fact that we remain oppressed – even after leaving prison. Due to this Jim Crow-based law, those of us who have served time and are now productive, contributing citizens to society, are not able to affect change in our communities with our vote. This not only takes away our civil rights but a piece of our humanity, as well.

This report is crucial to the understanding that when a large majority of marginalized people cannot vote, it directly impacts our socio-economic statuses and the development – or lack thereof – of our neighborhoods. The report points to data that proves the areas with the most returning citizens (formerly incarcerated people attempting to reintegrate into their communities) are disproportionately Black neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were already suffering from a lack of quality educational systems, over-policing and inadequate housing.

How can these areas change for the better if the majority of the people living in them cannot vote for officials who can make a difference in their counties? Elected officials can shift the paradigm of poverty and low-paying jobs to that of a sustainable lifestyle and better opportunities for the residents. The report points to the fact that when politicians run for office, they spend their time and energy in communities where there is either high voter turn-out or where there is a massive number of citizens who can exercise their right to vote. When making campaign promises, politicians focus on the needs and concerns of those neighborhoods. When you have counties like Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval, Escambia, Gadsden, Hillsborough, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach and Pinellas where more than 50 percent of the population cannot vote because they have felonies on their records, do you think those seeking election will pay attention to their issues? The answer is NO. They want to win, and without voting power, there’s no point to canvass in the zip codes pointed out in the Advancement Project’s report.

As a result, hard-working, rehabilitated returning citizens can be trapped in a cycle of poverty, low-paying jobs, low-performing schools and poor housing.

I am one of more than 1.6 million residents in Florida classified as returning citizens. That is a vast amount of Americans in just one state who cannot have a voice in what laws and policies will govern their everyday lives. “Democracy Disappeared” gives examples of past elections where the victories were decided by very small margins; some by merely a few thousand. Imagine if those 1.6 million additional people were able to vote? It could change the trajectory of people living in those marginalized counties for generations to come. Instead, this large group of people, including myself, remain disenfranchised.

If change is to happen, it must be in the hands of those in my community whose experiences can inform policies that can create better communities than the ones we grew up in. Yes, it is understood that reinstating our right to vote will not guarantee any kind of electoral outcome, but you will never know if you don’t give us a chance to speak through our votes. We should be viewed as citizens, not criminals. We also should not have to wait more than 10 years for a decision from Florida’s Clemency Board after applying for rights restoration. It should be automatic. We deserve to not only be seen but heard. Felony disenfranchisement laws in Florida must go.

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