On the night of November 6 last year, I was ecstatic.
Floridians overwhelmingly voted to reinstate my right to vote. That’s because I am a returning citizen – I have completed my sentence after being convicted of a felony.
Amendment 4 makes it clear that returning citizens can register to vote immediately after completing our sentences. That’s what a “self-executing” amendment meant.
So I registered. And I even voted in a Jacksonville municipal run-off election. It felt great to cast that ballot and be a full citizen and true part of my community, something I haven’t felt in a very long time.
Then Senate Bill (SB) 7066 was pushed through by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
I never thought nearly a year after Amendment 4 passed that I would be in a courtroom in Tallahassee testifying in front of a federal judge and trying to protect a right that I just got back.
Florida legislators who passed SB 7066, and DeSantis, went back on the word of Florida voters and tried to steal my voice and vote back from me.
Put simply, SB 7066 is a modern-day poll tax. It is discriminatory and essentially says that only people with money can vote.
Even when a judge has said your sentence is complete and restitution is being dealt with as a civil matter, the state is demanding payment to vote.
Florida is silencing hundreds of thousands of people again, inflicting pain again on a community that deserves a say in our state’s direction.
Thankfully, last Friday, the federal judge I testified in front of ruled that I, along with the 16 other plaintiffs in our case, would not lose our right to vote because we are unable to pay our court debt as required by SB 7066.
“The Right to Vote,” he titled a section in his decision, “Cannot Be Made to Depend on an Individual’s Financial Resources.”
This decision to block SB 7066 means I can vote in the presidential primaries next year and have a real voice in who runs our country and play my part in improving our society.
The judge was clear that the state of Florida can’t keep a person from voting if they are too poor to pay off their court debt.
However, returning citizens in situations nearly identical to mine are still at risk of losing their right to vote unless and until Florida creates a process to ensure that no one is being denied the right to vote because of their financial status.
Women of color will likely continue to face challenges to register and vote at a disproportionate rate to others. It’s still much harder for us to make a livable wage and secure jobs that allow us to take care of ourselves and our families.
And when we do secure jobs, we’re often paid less than men and white women. We’re constantly at the bottom of the barrel just trying to survive.
Let me be clear: this is not about avoiding responsibility. If I or others like me had thousands of dollars in our pockets today to pay restitution, we would. But we don’t, so our hands are tied.
People’s inability to pay shouldn’t bar them from having a voice in deciding who is best able to represent them and their community at all levels of government.
Florida can be better than this.
We live in this state and every day we are directly impacted by decisions politicians make – important decisions like having access to affordable housing, good-paying jobs, and healthcare.
For years, my voice was silenced, which meant that when making these decisions, politicians haven’t been thinking about me, or people, in my situation. In fact, oftentimes, the decisions they make worsen, not improve, our life condition.
Amendment 4 changed that – it allowed us to have a real voice when it comes to issues facing us and our families.
While I may have my right to vote back, I’m not turning my back on others in my position.
I joined the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit challenging SB 7066 so I can be part of the solution when it comes to protecting the fundamental right to vote.
I might not be wealthy in terms of money and material things, but when it comes to voting, that is the one thing that is supposed to make us all equal.
So, I will continue to work with the SPLC and other organizations to ensure that all people, including low-income people, have their voice heard in our democracy.
I’m committed to recreating the joy I felt last November.