US election: Florida ex-inmates cast ballots
The sticker on Yraida Guanipa’s jumper exclaimed “I VOTED!”, a badge of honour for her and many other ex-convicts in Florida who have won back their right to cast a ballot for America’s next president.
The line for early voting ahead of the November 3 election was long under the hot Miami sun, but it was nothing compared to the years Guanipa and others like her have been fighting to be allowed to vote again.
“When I was selecting the president, I was feeling like I’m walking toward my final freedom, or total freedom, after this conviction,” the 58-year-old told AFP.
Guanipa, who is originally from Venezuela, was released from prison in 2007 after serving nearly 12 years on a drug distribution charge.
“It’s freedom, it’s power, it’s voice,” she added after casting her first ballot since the 1992 election.
One hundred and fifty years ago, a law designed to prevent newly freed slaves from voting also disenfranchised ex-convicts.
In 2018, Floridians voted for Amendment 4, which restored the unconditional right to vote to 1.4 million ex-felons, except for those guilty of rape or murder.
After Guanipa’s release from prison, she founded the YG Institute, an NGO that helps other ex-convicts in their transition to freedom.
Its not clear how many ex-cons now eligible have registered to vote, but an estimate from the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald and ProPublica put the number at 31,400.
However, simply serving out their prison term is not enough in Florida. Ex-convicts are required to first repay their debts to the judicial system – fines, legal fees, damages.
The law disproportionately affects Hispanic and black voters. For some human rights activists, the legislation is a glaring example of voter suppression among minorities, who tend to vote Democratic.
Desmond Meade, also an ex-convict and leader of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, called for a march to the polls for people like him.
“I am 53 and this is my very first presidential election I’ve ever voted,” he told reporters.
‘PAYING PEOPLE TO VOTE’
Former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg was among a group who raised more than $US20 million last month to pay off outstanding court debts of 31,100 felons.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition had just passed the $US5 million mark before a major cash injection from the former New York mayor and others including singer John Legend.
Mr Bloomberg had pledged to spend $US100 million to help defeat Donald Trump in Florida, a crucial battleground state.
Mr Trump reacted in outrage, accusing the rival billionaire of a “criminal act”.
“It’s a felony,” the President told Fox News in September.
“He’s actually giving money to people. He’s paying people to vote. He’s actually saying, ‘Here’s money, now you go ahead and vote for only Democrats.’ Right?”
FRRC executive director Desmond Meade told reporters at the time the group was “not paying anybody to vote” and did not care how they voted, only that they had the right to cast a ballot.
“When we’re talking about taking care of the outstanding legal financial obligations, what we’re talking about is removing obstacles that allow people to participate in the democratic process,” Mr Meade said, according to Bloomberg.
Florida’s Republican attorney general, Ashley Moody, said at the time she had asked the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate whether Mr Bloomberg was illegally inducing felons to vote for Joe Biden.
“We have to have trust in our elections process. It’s essential to a strong, stable democracy,” Ms Moody told Fox News.
“When you hear words like targeting certain voters, investing and adding to a particular column, that doesn’t matter what party it is. That triggers Florida law, which under Florida law, you cannot directly or indirectly give anything of value to persuade or entice a vote.”