McKenzie, who’s now 30, went on to become the statewide leadership coordinator of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that led the fight to restore voting rights to former felons in the state. In 2018, 64 percent of Florida voters passed a ballot measure, Amendment 4, enfranchising an estimated 1.4 million. On phone calls for the coalition, McKenzie uses his story to persuade other former felons — or, as the coalition prefers to call them, returning citizens — to exercise their newly obtained right to vote.
Before he went to prison, McKenzie wasn’t interested in politics. Things changed in 2014, when he met Desmond Meade, the executive director of the Florida coalition, at a criminal justice reform event. “He was talking about voting rights,” McKenzie recalls. “I raised my hand and was like, ‘I don’t care for my voting rights. What can I do to get my gun rights back?’ ” Meade explained how the right to vote was the foundation for securing every other liberty. That resonated with McKenzie, and he joined the coalition as a volunteer, eventually working his way up to full-time staffer.
The 2018 victory has been steadily eroded in the two years since. Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill, enacted by the governor, stipulating that former felons could vote only once they paid any outstanding fines and fees to the court. “The financial terms, like any other terms of a sentence,” wrote the state, “are simply part of the debt that the felon owes to society.” Civil rights activists likened the restriction to a modern-day poll tax and argued that when voters passed Amendment 4, they understood it as completion of time served.
Complicating things further: The state doesn’t have a system for determining whether former felons have outstanding debts to the court, nor how much they owe. “Not only are they saying, ‘You can’t vote if you can’t afford to pay,’ ” says Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, “they’re saying, ‘You have to pay this amount, but we can’t tell you how much that is.’ ” The ACLU sued, and though a federal judge ruled in May that the law was unconstitutional, an appeals court reversed that decision in September, allowing the law to stand.
Other states have recently enfranchised former criminals. The most recent are Iowa, where the governor signed an executive order in August allowing former felons who had served their sentence to vote (it had been the last state in the country that barred them from voting for life); Kentucky, which did the same last year; Nevada, which passed a law last year that allowed former felons to vote as soon as they’re released from prison; and Louisiana, which last year restored rights to former felons still on parole or probation five years after they get out of prison.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Florida coalition had been actively registering voters, canvassing at cookouts and on street corners and going door-to-door. The group has beefed up its social media campaigns, as well as held Zoom calls educating new voters on the branches of government, the roles of various elected officials and how precincts work. Aside from meeting in-person, phone calls are the most personal way to connect. “I am a returning citizen myself, so I know how to speak the language,” McKenzie says. “I know exactly where they’re coming from.”
The coalition also has a flourishing fines and fees program, which helps those with felony convictions determine whether they have outstanding obligations to the state, and then pay them off. In July, the group announced a partnership with LeBron James’s More Than a Vote, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Black voting rights, and James pledged $100,000 to the program. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg has helped raise $16 million for the program, in an effort to increase turnout for Joe Biden. Since the fund started in 2019, the coalition has raised and spent nearly $27 million to pay former felons’ court costs.
In Florida, where presidential races historically hinge on slim margins, could this newly enfranchised bloc swing the vote? It’s possible, says University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith, who has worked with the ACLU in the suit against the eligibility restrictions. “You’ve got a lot of people who have been out of the electoral process who could get registered and who could turn out to vote,” Smith says. “Would all of them register? Of course not. Are all of them going to turn out to vote? Of course not. Would all of them register with one political party? Of course not. But the potential is great. You’re talking about one in 14 registered voters, potentially, who are not registered because of a felony conviction.”
The state’s restrictions on former felons’ voting eligibility have blunted that impact. Smith estimates that 774,000 will be disenfranchised because they have outstanding financial obligations to the courts, about half of the state’s former felon population. Still, says Ebenstein: “It’s Florida. Even 100 people can shape the electorate.”
Rebecca Nelson is a journalist in Chicago.