Neil Volz on tearing down barriers to vote for returning citizens
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) recently held a convention to mark its 10th anniversary. In 2018, the group successfully led an initiative to pass Amendment 4, restoring voting rights for over 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions, except for murder and sexual offenses. Before the passage of the measure, the Florida constitution permanently disenfranchised all citizens convicted of any felony crime unless the state's clemency board reinstated their voting rights, which was rare. The old policy was a vestige of the Jim Crow era, designed to keep Black Floridians off the voting rolls.
Following Amendment 4's adoption, however, Florida's Republican-controlled legislature passed a law to subvert it by requiring returning citizens to pay all court fees and fines before they can register. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a potential 2024 presidential candidate and Amendment 4 opponent, enthusiastically signed it into law. Opponents challenged the measure in court, but the Florida Supreme Court upheld it.
Now ahead of this year's midterm elections, DeSantis's new Office of Election Crimes and Security is targeting returning citizens for allegedly committing voter fraud in the 2020 election. On Aug. 18, DeSantis announced that 20 Florida residents in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties had been arrested for voting while ineligible because of the nature of their offenses. Those arrested could face five years in prison and be fined up to $5,000. However, numerous media reports found that those arrested didn't know they were ineligible to vote — and in some cases were actually told by local elections officials that they were eligible.
Voting rights advocates note that Florida has no centralized system that allows returning citizens to determine whether they owe fines or court costs. Meanwhile, a recent report from the New York Times found that prosecution of alleged voter fraud is highly inconsistent, with the harshest punishment often reserved for the poor and people of color.
"We believe that anyone who wants to participate in democracy and genuinely believes that they are eligible should not be punished because of the state's confusing voter system," FRRC said in a statement in which it called on Florida to improve its election systems.
Facing South recently spoke with Neil Volz, FRRC's deputy director, about the recent attacks on the right to vote for returning citizens. Volz, a former U.S. House staff member and Republican lobbyist convicted of a felony for his role in a political corruption scandal, has more than 25 years of experience working as a public servant and community advocate. Today with FRRC, he works to help people with past convictions find jobs, and he advocates for policy changes to help returning citizens have their rights fully restored. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
According to news reports, people in Florida are being arrested for allegedly voting illegally when elections officials allowed them to register in the first place. Help us understand what's happening and how it's affecting returning citizens.
What we've seen is a system that's broken. I appreciate how you asked that question, because at the end of the day the one thing that unites everyone in the state of Florida who's been arrested for voting is that they are people with past convictions and have been arrested for voter fraud. Their storylines all have a very similar pattern.
So most cases, what we're hearing is that people registered to vote. They got a voter identification card, their voter eligibility card. They are telling anyone who will ask that they thought they were eligible, so they voted. And now, years later, they are being arrested for voter fraud, suggesting that they had a willful intent to vote even though they knew that they were not eligible.
And the truth is no one should be arrested. There shouldn't be anyone in this situation if we had all done our job and improved the election system the way that everybody said that we wanted to see after Amendment 4 passed. Meaning, somebody can go get their voter eligibility determination at the front end. When you register to vote, the state can tell you if you're eligible or not, and that's what people thought was happening.
But what we know on the back end is that they're not determining the eligibility rightfully in that process, and the people who are paying the price for that are returning citizens who are now being arrested, and our families and our communities. It's jarring to think about a grandfather getting pulled from his house by SWAT team for voting in our state. The reaction is just as bad as the system itself. And so we are trying to encourage people to focus on the front end of the system and see that is how we can stop this from happening again.
FRRC has pointed out that Florida currently lacks systems to prevent this problem. What kind of systems does FRRC think the state needs to put in place?
We know that our state does not have a statewide database the way other states do. You go to North Carolina, you go to Louisiana, so many other states, and you're somebody who's just as impacted — you get your determination on the front end. And then everything from there works itself out in a much healthier way for our society.
I mean, the old adage is that the best way to fight crime is to stop it from happening in the first place. We all should take that advice right now. What's happened is that people are getting the impression that they're eligible to vote. Why would they think that? The state gave them a voter ID card. The idea that while the state is unable to tell somebody whether they're eligible or not, they can then also arrest them on the back end, that just doesn't make any sense. Real people's lives are being impacted by it.
I understand FRRC has a Fines and Fees Program that's also helping returning citizens determine their eligibility to vote. Tell us about that.
"We know that there's support within the public for restoration and redemption and forgiveness and the idea that we can move forward together as a community. We just need to touch it."
Our Fines and Fees Program was set up in 2019 as a way to help people who have barriers to voting related to the financial obligations they might still owe the court. And so that program does a variety of different things. One is we can connect somebody who is unclear about their eligibility with an attorney so that an attorney can actually help do the research to inform a potential voter of what their situation is.
We also can in some circumstances pay people's fines and fees. So that removes the barrier that exists for them to vote. And then they can decide whether they want to register or how they want to vote and move forward. But our hope would be to tear that barrier down.
And then there's a process in which you can get into the court system and potentially modify people's sentences. Maybe they can waive the financial obligations that are owed, or they can turn them into community service. The judges have leeway. We've also been working in that area to try and help people.
Our simple goal is we want all 1.4 million people who are impacted by Amendment 4 to have the ability to vote if they want it. So, we're continuing to work to tear those barriers down.
What other strategies are FRRC and other voting rights advocacy groups in Florida engaged in to counter the potentially vote-suppressing effects of DeSantis's criminal initiative?
Our view is that the best way to deal with any sort of voter suppression is to get people out to vote, and to educate people who might have questions — to encourage people to be poll workers, poll watchers, and engage in the process.
We're doing all three of those things. We have a huge voter protection program in which we're getting returning citizens, our families, our community members, to get engaged in that process. And then we are always encouraging and celebrating democracy and trying to get more people out to vote. That could mean in some cases, when people aren't eligible, encouraging their family members to get out. Other people are trying to get eligible. And still others, if they know that they're eligible, to register and get engaged in the system, because we know that's how change happens — through the power of the ballot box.
Since the passage of Amendment 4, how many returning citizens have successfully registered to vote in Florida, and what role do you see them playing in this year's elections?
The passage of Amendment 4 was such an amazing process — not only because of what happened, but how it happened. We saw people overcome divisiveness all across the state and unite behind the simple idea that when a debt's paid, it's paid. We saw a coalition of people that was beyond bipartisan. Not only did it have people from the right and the left, but it had people from all walks of life who got behind just some basic morals and values that we collectively share. And almost two-thirds of the public supported ending the lifetime ban on voting for 1.4 million people. It's the largest expansion of democracy in America in a generation, and we did it here in Florida.
So we know that there's support within the public for restoration and redemption and forgiveness and the idea that we can move forward together as a community. We just need to touch it. We need to communicate with people in a way that they see how they're able to make positive change for their own community, and that's what we try to do.
We continue to see more returning citizens registering to vote and getting engaged in the civic process here in Florida. And we know that people who are returning citizens come from all walks of life all over the state, Republicans, Democrats, independents. But we also know that our life experiences bring a set of issues to the conversation that we think will start to shape some of the conversations that we have around re-entry and second-chance employment. How do we view people coming out of the system as an asset to the community rather than something else? Because we believe the work that we do, the work about empowering people who have been impacted by the system, actually can help all of society.
That's just what this movement's built on. And so we know that's going to resonate around certain issues, issues that we are subject-matter experts in, and that we feel like we can actually be an asset. That experience can provide purpose and better policy. Sometimes we have to fight this narrative that people are remembered for the worst thing that they did, or you get this label and this stigma, and somehow you don't see it as something where we can create a benefit to everyone in the community. Because the truth is, we're only as strong as our weakest link, and people have been weakened by various systems, one being the criminal justice system. Whatever you think about the system, it's undeniable that 95% of the people in it are coming out of it. And if we create a way in which people can flourish, then we know that communities can flourish, and that this can actually be something that brings people together.
What's next in the quest to secure voting rights for Florida's returning citizens?
Our North Star is the empowerment of people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system here in Florida. That means tearing down barriers to economic mobility, to democracy, to people being full participants in their own communities. We know that there are still hundreds of thousands of returning citizens who are not yet eligible because they owe financial obligations to the court system, so we're going to continue to work to bring down those barriers.
We're going to continue to work to advance policies of second-chance employment that allow good employers to connect up with good employees and not get caught up in some kind of endless background check that ultimately doesn't help anybody. We want to do the same with housing and access to higher education, and all these avenues to a better life for people, all while we work to try and change the way we see each other. We firmly believe that if we can help change the way our communities see those of us who have made mistakes, we can create a better society for everybody.