Let My People Vote!

“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by human beings for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison people because they are different from others.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Members of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition walk through the halls of the Florida State Capitol on their way to meet with elected officials during Advocacy Day.

One of America’s leading intellectuals during his time — the sage Reinhold Niebuhr — said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

As we continue to cover the 2022 Florida Legislative Session, I am reminded of why we send representatives and senators, advocates and agitators, townspeople and city folk to Tallahassee in the first place: democracy.

The very practice of democracy.

Democracy literally means “the power of people.” In a democracy, government — and governing, for that matter — should not be about politics, but about people. Over and over again, I’ve heard leaders like Desmond Meade, Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), say, “We’re putting people over politics.”

That is the way it should be.

Democracy is one of FRRC’s four primary pillars and part of our overall vision to make the world better for all of us. We do not lean left or right, but lean straight forward into the issues we advocate for. Regardless of a person’s political persuasion or where they live, FRRC is committed to making sure all returning citizens are not disenfranchised or discriminated against. We know that eliminating barriers for returning citizens will help us get closer to a fully vibrant democracy.

Not everyone agrees. Why do we see decisionmakers willing to suppress the power of the people and democracy? What’s got some people unwilling to fight to see other people access true democracy or their vote?

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has both a keen eye and answer to the question: “Anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police.”

Aha!

When given the chance, ordinary people will choose democracy, not dictatorship. However, some of the people who are in power want to hold on to that power. They don’t want to give the people a chance to choose, and so they suppress the vote of the people who may go against them.

Now we understand why some have worked so hard over the years at keeping the ballot out of the hands of returning citizens. Those who are regaining their voice in our democracy want a say in how best we govern. We echoed these words during the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018, “It’s our vote! It’s our voice! It’s our time. Right now!”

Yes!

FRRC understands the power of one single voice being uttered through the casting of a ballot. We understand the vital importance of giving people a chance to choose. We are partnering with key leaders in government to move Florida’s democracy forward. For everyone.

Right now, hundreds of thousands of returning citizens in Florida are in the dark on whether they’re eligible to vote or when they might become eligible to vote. There are three reasons this problem is happening. First, in the wake of Amendment 4, our state legislature passed a law saying that returning citizens couldn’t regain their right to vote until they had paid off all of their fines, fees, and restitution.

Second, the state has no unified, coordinated system for determining whether a returning citizen has paid their fines and fees and is eligible to vote. It’s very difficult for returning citizens to figure out this information. They must do lots of research and make inquiries to our state judicial system to figure out exactly how much they owe, so they know how much they must pay to become eligible to vote.

Thirdly, the state responds to these queries one-by-one. That means there are hundreds of thousands of returning citizens waiting for a response.

The state realizes it needs a better system to respond to all of these inquiries. This year, Florida’s Department of State has asked the legislature for $1 million dollars to implement Amendment 4 and review and determine voter eligibility based on the current rules.

FRRC’s democracy initiative is to make sure the funds requested by the election officials within the Department of State are used effectively and efficiently. Our goal is to make it so the funding requested by the department must be used to create a system that moves away as quickly as possible from the current one-person-at-a-time approach, which wastes time and resources. We are working to collaborate with the Department of State to develop a more automated and efficient system that will benefit our government, taxpayers, and returning citizens alike. A system that does not create millions of dollars in additional bureaucracy without the kind of assurances that will allow us to fully live up to the promise of Amendment 4.

FRRC is speaking up and into this important budgeting measure to ensure that returning citizens get the information they need and the state can better use its resources to benefit all of us.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the citizens of the civil rights movement still shouting, “Give us the ballot!”

I say, “Give us the ballot!” and we will fill our legislative halls with men and women of good will who believe in second chances and the distribution of them.

Give us the ballot! And like King in his day, we will put judges on the benches of the same South who will do justly and love mercy.

“Give us the ballot!” of the 1950s and 60s is now “Let my people vote!” today. Returning citizens are saying it loud in barbershops, meeting halls, local schools, houses of worship, and the street corners too. “Let my people vote!” they say. With a pamphlet in one hand and a voter’s registration form in the other, supporters of democracy and the inclusion of returning citizens within that democracy are demanding that returning citizens also be allowed to choose who will represent them, legislate restoration on their behalf, and be a sentinel for their issues.

It’s on the shirts they wear. The bracelet on their wrists.

More importantly, it’s written on the iPads of their own hearts, “Let my people vote!” Desmond Meade often says that FRRC is committed to creating a more inclusive democracy for all. That means FRRC should fight just as hard for the voting rights of the returning citizen who wished they could have voted for Donald Trump as we do for the returning citizen who wished they could have voted for Barack Obama.

Until every returning citizen is freely accepted, fully restored, and finally redeemed, may every citizen who loves democracy keep shouting “Let my people vote!”

Shout it to your elected officials as you write letters, make phone calls, and send emails encouraging them to require the Florida Department of State to use those allocated state dollars — your dollars — to create a program or system that will streamline the process for determining voter eligibility under Amendment 4! The time has come. The funds are available. The people are ready. Give us the ballot and let my people vote!

Clap, comment, follow, and share if you believe that a more inclusive democracy creates a more vibrant democracy for us all.

Let my people vote!

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The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is committed to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with convictions

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Chasman Barnes

Chasman Barnes

Chasman is a Policy Professional, Advocate for Returning Citizens in Criminal and Social Justice Reform, TEDx Speaker, and sought after Communicator.

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