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Felon Voter Registration Continues As Advocacy Group Raises Money To Pay Fees And Fines

Blaise Gainey
Credit Blaise Gainey / WFSU-FM

Thousands of felons throughout the state are now eligible to vote, thanks to Amendment 4 and Governor Ron DeSantis signing the implementing bill into law. However, to do so they will have to register first, and organizations and advocates have been fanning out across Florida to sign up these newly eligible voters. Joining those efforts is former Leon County Commissioner Bob Rackleff.

The Direct Approach

It's early on a sunny, Saturday morning and Bob Rackliff is surrounded by a half-dozen volunteers. They're standing outside in the parking lot of the Walker-Ford Community Center. The Center is in the Bond neighborhood, one of several the group has been working recently.

“We did Frenchtown, and Griffin Heights, and then Bond and now Providence,” said Rackleff.

Credit Blaise Gainey / WFSU-FM

He started his registration effort shortly after Amendment 4 was approved in November. "It was clear to me that we would not be able to get a significant number of returning citizens registered to vote without a concerted effort.”

Rackleff has been spending his weekends going door to door to help people register to vote. On this day, he was in Tallahassee’s Providence Community.

“People move around a lot in neighborhoods like this so you really have to go to every door,” Rackleff explains. “When nobody's registered at an address we go to it anyway. And if somebody is there, they may not be registered at all or maybe they just moved. As I’ve said, it’s very labor intensive, but it really has to be done.”

Getting to their door is the first step. But getting people to register isn’t guaranteed.

Credit Blaise Gainey / WFSU-FM

Rackliff knocks on several doors in the neighborhood. Some people answer and confirm their registration. At other stops, the doors stay closed. Some residents, only talk through the screens, while others shoo Rackleff and his team off their property.

As Rackleff leaves one unanswered door, a man drives up in a gray SUV, music making the air vibrate. He gets up and Rackleff approaches and asks the man if he's registered to vote.

“I can’t vote,” the man tells him. "I'm a felon."

“Well you now have the right to vote,” replies Rackleff. But the man, who doesn't give his name, isn't interested.

“If I don’t have my rights back what’s the point of voting?" He says. “If I don’t have the right to own a gun, what’s the point?"

The man is visibly annoyed and Rackleff hands him a pamphlet about voting before walking across the street, to the next door.

Florida vs. Rights Restoration

Amendment Four only restores voting rights--not the right to bear arms, hold public office or serve on a jury. Some critics of the amendment raised that point in the runup to the November election and asked why backers of the amendment only targeted voting, and not full rights restoration. Governor Ron DeSantis says he is considering whether to restore all civil rights to non-violent felons.

Rackleff has experience going door-to-door from his days of campaigning, and he says people not wanting to vote is a pattern he’s noticed, especially with felons.

“Ex-felons are just the most marginalized people in our society, and they’ve really been through a lot," he said. "They’ve really have paid dues and it’s shameful that we put up these additional barriers to grant them a right that they have as citizens to vote.”

But not every person Rackleff meets this day feels that way. A few doors down the street, he gets a family that's interested and manages to register the mother. Then, the son comes to the door, and signs up as well.

“Congratulations!” Rackleff tells them.

The son says "thank you" and tells Rackleff he's a felon and didn't know the amendment had passed.

That’s something Rackleff has found a lot of during the past 4 months. But once he informs them and they want to register, next he checks to see if they qualify.

“Nobody I’ve talked to so far was convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. So we ask them have you completed your sentence, and if the answer is yes we sign them up,” explains Rackleff.

Credit Blaise Gainey / WFSU-FM

Payments: The New Hurdle

But that last question doesn’t always have a simple answer. Completing the supervision portion of a sentence is one thing, the financial obligation is another.

“Nobody knows better about having completed all the sentence than the ex-felon. The state certainly doesn’t know more about completing the sentence than the ex-felon. The state certainly doesn’t - there’s no central database that’s worth a damn,” said Rackleff.

Currently all 67 districts have their own database, meaning if people are convicted of a felony outside of the district they are registering in, it could take some work to find out if they owe any fees or fines. Supervisors of Elections and County Clerks want the legislature to provide funding for a central database but as of now haven’t received it.

For felons who do know how much they owe in court fines and fees, there are groups that are attempting to help pay them.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is the same group who got Amendment 4 on the ballot. Now it’s started a campaign called “We Got the Vote”. The goal is to raise $3 million that will go toward paying off fines and fees for felons looking to vote.

Copyright 2019 WFSU

Blaise Gainey is a Multimedia Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.