By Leila Rafei
Betty Riddle made sure she was first in line to vote in the Florida primary this year. At age 62, it was her first time voting. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” she told the ACLU. Her family made her a T-shirt just for the occasion, which read first in line, first time voting.
As a Floridian, Betty was subject to one of the nation’s harshest felony disenfranchisement laws. Before Amendment 4, Florida barred her from voting for life because of past felony convictions, even though she completed her sentence. Voter disenfranchisement is one of the many collateral consequences people with a conviction can face after they complete their sentences. To Betty, not being able to vote made hers a life sentence because the penalty would continue as opposed to a one-time collateral consequence. “I felt bad seeing my friends vote,” she says, “and I felt like I couldn’t make a difference. But I came to terms with it.”
Betty is one of over a million Floridians re-enfranchised by the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018. It was the single largest voting rights expansion in the country since the 26th Amendment decreased the voting age from 21 to 18 nearly 50 years ago. Even though Floridians resoundingly voted in favor of Amendment 4, the Florida legislature quickly tried to undermine it by passing a law requiring newly eligible voters to pay off all the exorbitant court costs, fines, and fees levied against them at the time of their conviction before voting.
“It made me feel a part of, instead of apart. I knew that my voice would be heard.”
Florida also has no centralized database where returning citizens can determine how much they owe, making it nearly impossible for some individuals to determine whether they are eligible to vote.
This unconstitutional monetary requirement was a poll tax. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Florida, the Brennan Center, and the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund immediately sued Florida on behalf of Betty, a dozen other people with felony convictions fighting to restore their right to vote, and organizations including the Florida NAACP and League of Women Voters of Florida, that help register eligible voters. In October of 2019, we won a preliminary injunction, which the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in February 2020. On May 24th, the federal district court ruled in our clients’ favor after a full trial.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the eight-day trial was conducted virtually, which came with its own difficulties. But the trial went on, with witnesses delivering their testimonies from home and clients calling in to listen throughout the trial.
As a mother of four, grandmother of 24, and great-grandmother of eight children, Betty knows she is setting an important example by fighting for her right to vote. “The fight that we went through got my grandkids to see how important it is to vote,” she says. “They tell me, ‘Grandma, you’re making a difference.’”
Like most people formerly incarcerated, Betty struggled for years to rebuild her life after completing her sentence. By the time she was released she had spent nearly her entire adulthood in the system, caught in a cycle of addiction that led to several convictions. After her release and recovery, she realized her fight was not over when she tried to apply for public housing and was rejected based on a background check — despite doing everything the application process required.
“I said, ‘look. I’m homeless. I’m in college. I need my own place,’” recalls Betty. “I’m 57 years old and I’m doing the best I can.” After countless letters, phone calls, and persistence, Betty finally enrolled in college as a grandmother.
“It was eye-opening,” Betty says. “I didn’t realize that it wasn’t right until I asked myself, ‘Why are we paying to vote?’ When Julie called to ask me to join the ACLU lawsuit, it was a gift from God.”
Today, Betty looks forward to voting this November now that her right has been secured by the court order. She says she is ready to be first in line again. “I’m going to wear another T-shirt,” she laughs. “I don’t know what this one will say, but I’m going to wear it.”
Betty registered in January 2019 when Amendment 4 became effective, then faced more obstacles after the Florida legislature enacted a poll tax. Like many people with a felony conviction, she didn’t know how much she owed, and it was a challenge just to find out — especially since her convictions date back to 1975. After many calls, visits, and letters, she learned she owed over $1,000, which she could not afford to pay. The unfairness didn’t hit her right away.
In 2018, Florida’s voters made clear they want returning citizens to rejoin the franchise. This court decision reaffirms that the right to vote cannot depend on your bank account. Winning back the right to vote, explains Betty, was something she thought would never happen. “It made me feel a part of, instead of apart. I knew that my voice would be heard.”
Leila Rafei is a Content Strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union.
For More Florida News: WWW.ELSEMANARIOFLORIDA.COM