Op-Ed

We will not let ex-offenders be shut out of the voting process | Opinion

Desmond Meade is a leading advocate for restoring ex-offenders’ right to vote automatically.
Desmond Meade is a leading advocate for restoring ex-offenders’ right to vote automatically. Getty Images

For years, Florida’s ex-offenders fought for the right to vote, and last year they won a resounding victory. The passage last year of Amendment 4 — with support from over 64 percent of voters — was the largest expansion of the right to vote in more than half a century, since the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

I was proud to stand alongside this movement’s remarkable leaders, like Desmond Meade, and fight for Amendment 4’s passage.

Now, the next chapter of our work has begun.

Just weeks ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law legislation that implements Amendment 4. This new law creates financial, legal and bureaucratic hurdles that have confused everyone from lawmakers to lawyers to ex-offenders themselves. Frankly, returning citizens are rightfully more focused on their families and finding work and housing than navigating the voter-registration bureaucracy.

While I may not agree with this legislation, the highest purpose to which I can dedicate my time is helping returning citizens navigate this new law and get registered to vote.

That’s why People Over Profits, the nonprofit organization I lead, has launched a new initiative to support ex-offenders as they seek to register.

Our goal is simple but audacious: to make sure the maximum possible number of ex-offenders get to exercise their new right to vote, as soon as possible.

People Over Profits is committed to empowering ex-offenders seeking to register with the tools, information and legal aid they deserve. To get that done, we’ll reach ex-offenders in several ways:

First, we’ve produced a voter registration guide for ex-offenders and civic organizations to use so that can answer the most common questions about how to register as a returning citizen.

Second, we’ve produced a shareable infographic that includes all the steps to navigate the process, from release from prison to entering the voting booth.

Third, we have put together a legal-aid network of volunteer attorneys across Florida who are ready to help ex-offenders with the process. Ex-offenders who need help can call our free legal aid hotline at 727-900-6678 or go to ThePeopleOverProfits.org to connect with a free attorney.

People Over Profits is making a long-term commitment to supporting returning citizens. For thousands of ex-offenders the process to register to vote will be fairly simple, but even minor bureaucratic hurdles could prove a deterrent to registering, and we want to make sure the bureaucracy isn’t a barrier for any single person.

For thousands of others who have restitution, fines or fees to pay before they can register, there are other options that might be available to them, such as community service. Across Florida, I’m excited to see a movement starting to make community service a standard option for ex-offenders who can’t afford their court fines and fees.

In Tampa Bay and Miami, states attorney are working to create fast-track processes for returning citizens to quickly convert their outstanding fines into community service. They aim to make these new “rocket dockets” available in time for returning citizens to register and vote in the 2020 elections.

For most ex-offenders, the path to casting a ballot in 2020 is paved with good intentions — and obstacles. To overcome them, they need help: If you’re a Florida attorney, consider joining our volunteer network of lawyers assisting ex-offenders at ThePeopleOverProfits.com. If you’re not a lawyer, you can still help out in a big way: Download our free voter-registration guide for returning citizens and distribute it in your community.

Together, tens of thousands of progressives worked to pass Amendment 4. Now, it’s on all of us to meet this next challenge and help as many ex-offenders register to vote as possible.

Sean Shaw is president of People Over Profits. He is a former Florida state representative and the Florida Democratic Party’s 2018 nominee for attorney general.

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