Florida Politics

As singer John Legend watched, felons who served their time get their right to vote restored

Carmen Brown can vote again.

The 64-year-old Miami woman, with four felonies on her record from decades ago, was the first person called up in a special court hearing Friday aimed at restoring her right to vote under Florida’s Amendment 4.

While the Florida Supreme Court considers whether court-related fines and fees can prevent felons who have served their time from registering to vote, that will no longer be a barrier for people like Brown in Miami-Dade.

As a crowded courtroom erupted into applause, Brown hugged Miami-Dade’s top prosecutor and public defender. Then, she embraced a special guest, singer John Legend, a high-profile advocate of criminal justice reform who showed up Friday to support the restoration of voting rights.

“Thank you so much,” Brown said, crying.

She said after the hearing: “I am so grateful. I’m overjoyed to get to exercise my right as a citizen.”

Brown was one of more than 20 felons who appeared at a special hearing Friday created to expedite the restoration of voting rights.

The docket was established as a fast-track method by which Miami-Dade judges can set aside some financial penalties that would otherwise prohibit a felon from participating in elections. About 150,000 felons are eligible to seek relief from the court in Miami-Dade.

“I wanted to be here today because it’s a celebration,” Legend told reporters. “It’s so beautiful to see real people affected by this law change. They’re here crying, they’re so happy to vote.”

Friday’s court hearing was attended by a host of Miami-Dade leaders who helped establish the program, including State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Public Defender Carlos Martinez. The presiding judge: Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, who was instrumental in pushing for the program.

“This is a good day,” Sayfie told the courtroom. “It’s a day we celebrate democracy.”

Last November, a statewide referendum passed Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to more than 1.2 million Floridians with felony records. Under the amendment, people who have been convicted of sex crimes or murder can not apply to get their voting rights restored.

Amendment 4 overturned a 150-year-old law that had prevented felons from voting, designed to restrict black people from voting. Florida had been one of only four states that restricted convicted felons from voting.

By 2016, one in five black Floridians were barred from voting because they had a felony on their record.

“We looked at this as a celebration of creating a more inclusive democracy,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which pushed the successful constitutional amendment in November to restore voting rights to felons in Florida.

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Singer John Legend was on hand Friday at a special court hearing to restore the rights of former felons in Miami-Dade County. David Ovalle Miami Herald

But Florida’s Legislature, led by GOP lawmakers, passed a law in March that required felons to pay off any outstanding court-related debt before they could be eligible to vote. Critics likened it to a racist “poll tax,” reminiscent of Jim Crow-era voter suppression.

Some felons had already registered to vote after Amendment 4’s passage, only to be notified that their eligibility had been rescinded after the Legislature’s new bill took effect.

More than a dozen felons have since sued the state, many represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. That case is set to go to trial in April.

In the meantime, Miami-Dade has become the first county in the state to mandate that when people finish serving out their prison time, they are not kept from voting because of financial burdens on the outside. More than $278 million in outstanding court fines from felony cases exist in Miami-Dade since 2000, according to Miami Herald News partner WLRN News.

While former felons in Miami-Dade will still be on the hook for the court costs, this will not restrict them from registering to vote. They can also petition to have their fines converted to community service.

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Singer John Legend, center, was on hand Friday at a special court hearing to restore the voting rights of former felons in Miami-Dade County. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Not everyone is eligible — anyone convicted outside of the state or in federal court is not.

Still, for the hundreds of thousands of Miami-Dade residents who can register to vote, the State Attorney’s Office encourages them to reach out.

“Don’t be afraid,” Fernandez Rundle said. “We want people to come forward.”

One of the first people to participate in the special court was Dolce Bastin, 44, accompanied by his father, a Haitian immigrant. Bastin said he registered to vote at 18.

Less than a year later, Bastin was convicted of attempted murder and arson, charges for which he spent more than three years in prison. He was released in 2000, and had been trouble free since — but unable to vote.

Bastin said he feels he has finally recovered his voice as a citizen.

“It’s a proud moment to know that you can get a second chance,” he said. “Voting does make a difference.”

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.
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