UPDATE 10/18/19: A federal court ruled that the right to vote cannot be denied on account of wealth, partially granting a preliminary injunction requested by the Brennan Center and other voting rights groups. The ruling means that Pastor Clifford Tyson and all individual plaintiffs in the suit challenging Florida’s law will be able to vote. But the decision leaves voting rights up in the air for other returning citizens who owe legal financial obligations. The court ordered the state to come up with a process that allows other returning citizens to prove they cannot pay.
Last November, nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved the Voting Restoration Amendment, also known as Amendment 4, a ballot measure that restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million residents with a past felony conviction who have completed their sentences. But in June 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law S.B. 7066, which will weaken Amendment 4 by denying voting rights to returning citizens until they settle certain court debts related to their convictions.
Under the new law, people with felony convictions are ineligible to vote if they have any outstanding court fees, fines, restitution, or costs — even if they have already completed their time in prison or on probation. The state’s chaotic system of keeping records also makes it practically impossible for returning citizens to know whether they are eligible to vote. That’s partially because Florida does not have a unified system for recording data on outstanding legal costs within the state or for accessing data on federal or out-of-state financial obligations.
The Brennan Center and other groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional. One of the plaintiffs in the case is Clifford Tyson, a 63-year-old pastor who lives in Tampa. He had his voting rights restored under Amendment 4, but those rights are now in doubt due to the new law. He spoke with Brennan Center staff writer Tim Lau to discuss his ongoing journey of fighting for his right to vote.
You registered to vote on the first day the amendment went into effect. What was that experience like for you?
Well, actually I registered online. The moment I became eligible, we registered, me and my wife. We got on the computer and I registered to vote. A few weeks later I received my voter's registration card and it was a happy moment.
But the ultimate happiness was on the morning of my first chance to vote. I went down to the polls in our district with my 5-year-old grandson and my wife. And when they gave me my ballot, I actually walked over and started crying. It was mostly tears of joy, because I had not voted in 42 years. When I was in college, I was active in the political arena, and we were active in getting people to register to vote. So, I felt like I had been given my life back that moment. And I wanted my grandson to witness it so it would be important to him — and it was just a bunch of joy.
I've always been politically active, whether it's in the church, or whether it was history — seeing, knowing what has happened over the years. And even when I couldn't vote, I was going out and getting people to register to vote. So, when I then had the opportunity to vote, I couldn’t say one thing and do the other. I’ve always felt that was important. And I’ve never stopped trying to fight to get my rights back.
The governor recently signed a new bill that requires returning citizens like you to pay off all court fines and fees before registering to vote. How has this new law affected you?
Even before he was elected, I knew that Governor DeSantis had some reservations about the amendment. He kept talking about it in a way that was vague, and there needed to be some kind of stipulations. And when he won that election, I read in the newspaper, that they were talking about introducing a bill requiring that all the stipulations be met. And the legislature did pass the bill, and the governor did sign it.
It hasn’t been easy to track down the information for my outstanding costs and fines. According to everything I found out, all the restitution had been paid, I didn't owe anything. But my lawyer found that there were some court costs incurred. So, I still didn’t find those on my own, and I wouldn't have known about the court costs until my lawyer and their team found them for me. It was hard.
Moving forward, what concerns do you have about voting again?
I’ve voted twice since Amendment 4 passed. But they passed this new law, and I don't want to break any laws. I want to vote, but I can't go vote, because I don't want to violate any of their laws if I'm in that group of people that can't vote. It's confusing. I don't know if I'm in that group. I already live off of $7,600 a year. That's what I get in disability. I have bills that outnumber that. I don't have the ready finances to go pay anything else that I owe. And it's disheartening to go through all of this, to wait 42 years before finally getting to vote twice, and they throw this curveball at you.
So, I'm in limbo about whether I should vote or not. Right now, I can't vote. That's the way I'm looking at it because they’ve got this law out there. And until there's clarity on it, there are elections that I'm going to lose out on. It may not make a difference to some people, but it makes a difference to me.
Ultimately, I hope that people are treated fairly. There are some people who messed up in their lives — they went and they made some mistakes. And then there are some people who are in prison, believe it or not, that are innocent.
Either way, those who get out and have paid their debt should be afforded the opportunity to get their rights back. That’s part of the rehab process, too. A lot of people lose their families, loved ones, and everything else. And when you get something back that you lost, as small as it may be to some people — such as their civil rights or their voting rights — that's enough to help boost somebody to change their life. A person should be able to have another chance to get it right. Once they get it right, they should be afforded to get the things that they worked hard for. I’ll never stop trying to get my rights back. Never.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.