Felons' Voices Get Restored Through Voting

By: Titilayo Okuwa

When the people voted in 2018's primary election, Rebecca Joseph sat anxiously waiting—breathing a sigh of relief once amendment four passed, restoring her and 1.4 million ex-felons' right to vote.

 

"I was super excited when amendment four passed because I felt like this was finally the opportunity for those who were struggling with criminal records to get their voices heard," She said. "I spent two days in the county jail and still deal with the same challenges as someone who was in prison for ten years."

 

Joseph found herself in jail after a dispute with a family friend that owed her a debt. She says what started as a simple conversation led to an altercation in which she snatched her friends' purse. She returned it with all its contents immediately but was ultimately convicted of robbery by sudden snatching, a third-degree felony.

 

As an entrepreneur with a degree from Florida A&M University, Joseph says she never realized the effects the situation could have on her career and ability to provide for her twelve-year-old daughter. 

 

"I deal over and over again with homelessness and just not being able to make reasonable money," she said. "Paying rent on a monthly basis is like a huge feat for someone who has a felony." 

 

Joseph says amendment four restored more than her vote; it gave back her voice. It inspired her to help the Big Bend Voting Rights Project with their goal of registering a thousand voters in the big bend area. They aimed to register as many returning citizens as possible before the 2020 presidential election. 

 

Before Covid-19, the team canvassed low-income neighborhoods every other weekend in search of ex-felons. A touchy process, in which some people were not very receptive to the strangers at their doorsteps.  

 

"I didn't realize how many people were unaware that amendment four passed, and two were just convinced that their vote didn't matter," Joseph said. 

 

According to one of the founders of BBVRP, Bob Rackleff, the team often met with uninterested citizens.

 

"I've run into about one out of every three or four person's whose an ex-felon, that says well I don't want to register, and they have the typical excuses," he said. "I've tried many arguments, and the most effective is amendment two, $15/hour minimum wage."

 

Despite reluctant citizens, they were mostly successful until hitting a snag in 2019. State legislatures passed a law requiring returning citizens to pay all fines and fees associated with their sentence before they could vote. Felon's already skeptical about voting could now face jail time for voting illegally if they owed court fees. The matter was litigated up to the Supreme Court but was upheld just before the election.  BBVRP continued registering eligible felons and exceeded their goal by the registration deadline.  

 

According to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalitions, a little over 67,000 felons registered before the 2020 elections. Although advocates are far from the 1.4 million offenders they'd hope to register, the effort will continue across the state to re-enfranchise voter in future elections. 

Restoring the One Point Four Short Film

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Joseph successfully completed her ballot at the Leon County Supervisor of Elections Office,

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Returning citizen, Rebecca Joseph, enthusiastically posing with her I voted sticker!

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Bob Rackleff waits as volunteers arrive to remind people to early vote.

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Big Bend Voting Rights Project sponsored informational signs about amendment four to be posted around urban areas in Tallahassee.

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Bob Rackleff is one of the founders of Big Bend Voting Rights project. He is a former Leon County commissioner and speech writer for President's Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

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Rackleff's on the go canvas launching site. All the materials needed for the canvas are packaged in his trunk.

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Faith Harmon is an FSU student and one of the lead volunteers with the Big Bend Voting Rights Project. She waits to the right of Rackleff as they prepare to canvas.

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At home Rackleff is usually a one man band, organizing walk lists for volunteers.

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Rackleff prepares a list during early voting days to remind people they've registered to vote.

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Voter registration cards lay scattered across Rackleff's dining room table. These are all pre-filled cards from people that were registered by the group.

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Volunteers with BBVRP wear these shirts, sponsored by Forward, Florida when canvassing.

Photo's by Titilayo Okuwa

© 2023 by Titilayo Okuwa