Many convicted felons in Florida are voting in a presidential election for the first time in decades. We went with one to the polls as he voted for the first time in 25 years.

  • This is the first year many former felons in Florida have been able to vote in a presidential election.
  • In 2018, Florida restored voting rights to felons, but only if they first paid off all court fees and restitution owed.
  • Kirk Bailey of the ACLU said the financial requirement is designed to disenfranchise voters.
    Business Insider joined former felon Curtis Frasier as he cast his ballot for the first time in 25 years. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

On Tuesday morning, Curtis Frazier headed to the polls for the first time in 25 years. At 58 years old, he has only voted once in his adult life. A felony conviction in 1996 kept him from voting for more than two decades, but then in 2018, Floridians passed Amendment 4, giving nearly 1.7 million people with felony convictions the right to vote. The amendment put Florida among the 40 other US states that allow people with felony convictions to vote after they've served their time and completed parole and probation.

For tens of thousands of former felons, including Frazier, this year is the first time they've been able to vote in a presidential election in years. Frazier pulls up to his voting location in Tampa at 9 am — he wants to make sure he beats the lines. Wearing a white "Fight for $15" t-shirt draped over his large frame, he projects a sense of calmness.

"I'm feeling good," he tells Business Insider as he walks from his car to the banquet hall where he'll cast his vote. "I had to grow a lot, I had to do a lot. I had to restore my rights just to vote in this election."

This election is particularly important to Frazier, a manager at a local Wendy's. As part of the national Fight for $15 campaign, Frazier has been campaigning for Amendment 2, a ballot measure that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2026. The measure has profound implications for Florida's 1.7 million convicted felons; often the only jobs that will accept felons are minimum wage positions in the service industry. "Making $15 will give us the chance to get healthcare, afford rent, buy gas. It'll give us the power to fight back," Frazier said.

Walking up to the polling location, Frazier seems unsure — as if he's wondering if this is something he is actually allowed to do. He'd have good reason to feel that way — for most of the past two hundred years, what he was doing would have been illegal.

Felon disenfranchisement has its roots in the Jim Crow laws of the post-Reconstruction era, said Kirk Bailey, the Political Director at the ACLU of Florida. "For years, we were living under a Jim Crow rule that said that if you got a felony conviction, your voting rights were terminated," Bailey said. "And the only way you could get them back was through clemency, which put you at the whim of the governor."

In 2018, Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative passed. It restored voting rights to felons, but required returning citizens — the term commonly used by felon's rights advocates to refer to formerly incarcerated people — to pay off their court fees and restitution before gaining the right to vote.

After a group of former felons sued the state, a federal judge overturned the law, saying it was akin to a poll tax. But in July, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned the federal decision, meaning that former felons who had registered to vote during the period when the ruling was overturned were once again disenfranchised.

"I have my voter registration card — I'm still active," Rosemary McCoy, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told Insider. "But because of the appeal, I can't vote."  

She's not alone. In fact, the vast majority of the 1.7 million felons in Florida can't register to vote, likely because of outstanding fees. "Florida is really bad in terms of the fees that it charges. Every little thing is nickeled and dimed in the Florida criminal courts, which is a problem when people don't have the money," Neel Sukhatme, a law professor at George Washington University who studies felon disenfranchisement in Florida, told BI. The state even requires those on trial to pay a fee for a public defender. 

Florida is known for its razor-thin margins — Trump won the state in 2016 by just 100,000 votes. Felons, who are overwhelmingly registered as Democrats, could make up a small but influential voting block in the 2020 presidential election. Their role in this election, as well as the fact that there is still significant uncertainty around which felons are allowed to vote, have all the trappings of a legal battle in the making. 

"We are going to be paying close attention to whether or not returning citizens were challenged at the polls," Bailey of the ACLU said. "Were their ballots counted? At what rate? Is there anything odd in how they turned out and the rejection rates of their balance?"

For many people with felony convictions, voting represents something larger. As he walks out of the voting location, his vote cast and counted, he pumps his fist triumphantly. Later on, he says that voting was another step toward becoming a fully integrated citizen.

"Getting your rights back feels tremendous," he said, beaming. "To be able to vote, to me, is what I needed to get my voice heard." 

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