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Analysis

A Florida Pastor’s Fight for the Right to Vote Under Amendment 4

The Brennan Center is challenging a law that’s trying to take away newly restored voting rights from hundreds of thousands of people.

October 7, 2019
Pastor Tyson
CLIFFORD TYSON

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.