BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — On Monday, Nov. 11, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) rolled up to the Enoch Davis Center in its big red bus as part of its 67-county 2019 FRRC Bus Tour, and the first event for the Pinellas County Chapter of FRRC.
Founded in 2003, the FRRC is a grassroots membership-based, non-profit organization run by returning citizens (or formerly convicted Floridians), and more than 70 national and statewide organizations, including the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters, and Florida Immigration Coalition, among others.
Under the leadership of Desmond Meade, FRRC gained a historic victory in 2018 with the successful passage of their Amendment 4 campaign, which restored voting rights to more than 1.4 million Floridians with past felony convictions and was the largest expansion of voting rights in the United States in over five decades.
This year the bus tour has been on the road addressing the barriers that still stand in the way of former felons being able to vote.
Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, lost his voting rights for 13 years and was on hand to help those in attendance address the issues – which for most are financial.
Volz explained, “We are registering people to vote, helping people sign up for our Fines and Fees Fund if people still owe financial obligations with their sentences, and we’re encouraging people to get engaged in the community.”
So far, the coalition has collected more than $500,000 for it Fines and Fees Fund to this point, all of which go to those who need help paying their legal costs – which are mostly administrative fees — to register.
Organizer, activist and filmmaker Jabaar Edmond is the Pinellas County Chapter lead. “Our meeting is every first Thursday at six o’clock,” he shared, explaining that county chapters help raise donations and locate the stories of returning citizens who might need help.
“We share opportunities; we talk to each other. And it’s counseling — it’s also a group where we comfort each other and help each other. Also, we’re looking to get people in action, knocking on doors, canvassing, talking to people about voting and registering people to vote,” Edmond added.
According to The Sentencing Project, while there are 840,000 people in Florida who are eligible to vote, there are 560,000 people who still need to help to become eligible.
That eligibility is being delayed due to state law SB 7066, which requires payment of all court-ordered restitution, fines and fees before those with felony convictions are allowed to vote.
Recently civil rights lawyers have filed suit against the state on behalf of 17 plaintiffs claiming that the law is an unconstitutional Jim Crow era poll tax. Florida Judge Robert Hinkle has temporarily blocked the law until the conclusion of the federal trial, which will not begin until April 2020.
But lawyers say that the poll tax has dissuaded many from registering and caused fear among formerly convicted persons, who fear breaking the law if fees from a long-ago case were discovered.
Volz said the coalition recently helped a group of returned citizens in Miami appear in court and worked with the state attorney and public defender to get a court decision from the judge that would allow them to vote – and they registered that day.
The coalition is working with state attorneys, including Andrew Warren in Hillsborough, to see what more can be done to address the issues.
Volz said Warren is “very focused on allowing people with financial hardships to modify their sentences. You have different state attorneys throughout the state who are looking at what’s possible.”
Calling the 2019 bus tour “an appetizer,” Volz said the bus would be returning to Hillsborough and Pinellas in 2020 to continue to help spread the word.
“I was overwhelmed — there was a lady who came in here, she paid $70 to Uber. Why? So, she could register to vote,” he added. “You know, that’s just powerful. That is somebody who’s like, ‘I want to be a full citizen again.'”
Disenfranchised felons can text FINES to 82623 or visit Florida Rights Restoration Coalition website at FloridaRRC.com to learn more about getting help with their fines and fees.
For more information, you can also call 1-877-MYVOTE-0.
To reach J.A. Jones, email firstname.lastname@example.org