“You don’t realize how important your right to vote is until it’s taken away from you. In my case, for 18 years,” Whitaker, who was in prison from 1998 to 2016 and founded the nonprofit Adversity Overcomers Outreach Ministries after his release, told VICE News. “For a lot of us, we would love nothing more than to have all our rights returned back to us, to get back into the flow of life and make a change. Part of that is voting.”
But Florida has continued to make it difficult for thousands of former felons like Whitaker to vote, and new barriers have created more confusion and post-release hurdles for reintegrating back into society. In many cases, advocates say, these barriers are enough to dissuade these Floridians from taking part in the election process altogether—particularly after state lawmakers created a specific unit within the state police to investigate election crimes and 20 people were arrested in August for alleged voter fraud, a third-degree felony.
Last month, the Tampa Bay Times obtained body camera footage from these arrests, showing confused and frustrated returning citizens being handcuffed. When 55-year-old Ramona Oliver was approached by police as she was leaving for work before 7 a.m., she responded: “Voter fraud? I voted, but I didn’t commit no fraud.” More than half of those arrested were Black, according to the Times.
“You don’t realize how important your right to vote is until it’s taken away from you.”
“I think [Amendment 4] was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders,” DeSantis, who signed the new law, said just six months after the amendment passed. (Neither the governor’s office nor Secretary of State Cord Byrd responded to a list of questions from VICE News.) A total of 4.6 million people in the U.S. are disenfranchised due to a prior felony conviction, according to data released by the Sentencing Project last month, and four years after Floridians voted to restore voting rights to former felons, the state still has the largest number of disenfranchised returning citizens in the country. More than 934,000 people who’ve completed their sentences are still ineligible to vote, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for the rights of the incarcerated, including their right to post-prison suffrage.
“I’ve heard from people out there [doing voter registration] that people have said, ‘I’m not going to vote because I’m afraid I’ll get prosecuted.’”
Whitaker told VICE News that after body camera footage of Floridians being arrested for voting made the rounds among his old prison friends, many of them expressed a reluctance to vote. Whitaker said even he was initially hesitant about casting a vote this month, even though he voted just last year without any problems.
“We definitely have talked with people who are unsure, and are deciding that they are not going to be a part of the voting process.”
The only reason he’s still going to the polls next week is because of his close working relationship with the state’s attorney general.
“I’m banking on the fact that if I do run into any kind of issues and problems, [the attorney general is] someone I could call upon,” Whitaker said. Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project who sued the state over its 2019 law, said regaining access to the right to vote helps returning citizens fully become members of society again. “It’s all around a positive thing for the individual and everybody else for people to be able to re-engage,” Ebenstein said. “It’s a point of pride for a lot of our clients and others."
For some former felons, these barriers further reinforce the idea that there is no point in practicing one of the few rights afforded to them after serving time, and that the right to vote alone isn’t enough to make them full members of society again. During a weekly call-in show last month on South Florida public radio station WUSF, a man identified as “Spencer in Jacksonville” called in during a discussion of the arrests and said that though he’d had his rights restored, he had no intention of voting.“I kinda think it’s all just really crap. You get your rights restored but all you’re allowed to do is vote. You’re not allowed to carry a handgun and protect yourself, you’re not allowed to live in Section 8 housing. This is a mess created by our politicians,” Spencer said. “I still don’t vote. And I won’t. Why should I?”Despite the uncertainty, though, many returning citizens aren’t giving up on voting entirely. For some, like Whitaker, having a voice after all these years is well worth the risk of accumulating new charges on their record.
“When it comes to rights restoration, in a lot of cases, we’re talking about people who are no longer serving their sentence.”
“I’m not gonna back down from it, I’m just going to go vote. [...] Whatever occurs after that, I’m just going to have to deal with it at that point in time,” Whitaker said. “Man, I did 18 years. I’m looking forward to pushing forward and doing what I know God has called me to do. All these little hindrances that keep coming up that’s trying to distract from what I’m doing, I just can’t allow for that to happen.”
For others, the uncertainty around their vote has given them new purpose: advocating to those closest to them to practice their American right in their stead.
“We also know some of those same people are using this energy to reach out to their neighbors, to their friends, to their loved ones, and encouraging them to be their voices at the ballot box, which is not unusual for this movement,” Volz said. “That’s how we got all our petitions by and that’s how we got people to vote for Amendment 4, before any of us could even vote, those of us with past convictions, is to go to your loved ones and be like, ‘Hey, be my voice.’”