by Curtis Lee
Curtis Bryant Jr. has an evening routine — he scrolls through the television channels, stopping briefly for headlines on a local station before flipping to the national news.
There’s the back-and-forth impeachment drama and all-too-familiar segments about people working full-time jobs yet struggling to make ends meet. And, since the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, a short drive from his home, he’s paid close attention to the fight over gun control.
Bryant, 38, says he is more engaged in social and political issues than ever before and that he’s counting down the days until next year’s elections.
“It’s something I never thought of before, when I was running them streets,” said Bryant, who served nearly a decade in prison for selling crack cocaine. “Voting is my voice. It’s a voice I’ve never used, but I’m ready.”
But that might prove difficult.
Bryant is among the roughly 1.4 million Floridians who had their voting rights restored last year by state voters through a ballot measure, known as Amendment 4, that cast a national spotlight on the disenfranchisement of felons, even long after they served their sentences.
But within months, the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature acted to limit the effect of the initiative — passing a measure to allow voting only by formerly incarcerated felons who have paid off all court-imposed fees, which in some cases amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
Voting rights advocates say the action undermined the will of the people and effectively created a “poll tax,” harkening back to the Jim Crow-era laws that used voting fees as a way to suppress blacks from casting ballots.
“For far too many individuals, access to the ballot is determined by their ability to pay,” Danielle Lang, senior legal counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said.
Last month, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction, pausing the legislation until early next year. Activists fear that confusion over the state of the law could keep former felons like Bryant, who makes an hourly income that is just enough to cover monthly bills, from registering to vote.
And despite the uncertainty, one thing seems clear: The state has rejuvenated debate over who should be eligible to vote before the looming presidential race and competitive Senate contests nationwide.
While only Maine and Vermont allow felons still in prison to cast ballots, most states, including California, automatically restore people’s rights after they have left prison and complete probation or parole, which can take several years. Eight of those states require freed felons to pay all court fees before voting.
Three states, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, do not allow those who have completed prison sentences to vote unless the governor personally intervenes in individual cases.
Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds recently announced her support for a ballot measure that would allow ex-felons the right to vote in her state. In Arizona, one of eight states requiring fee payments, lawmakers recently passed a measure allowing formerly incarcerated convicts to vote without having finished paying up if it’s their first felony offense.
Nationwide, 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in fines and fees related to criminal convictions, according to a report released in July by the Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic. A recent national report, a collaboration of nearly two dozen community-based organizations across the country, found that former felons and their families in 14 states on average owed $13,600 in court fees and fines.
“These financial obligations can be cruel and cynical,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of several groups to file a lawsuit against the Florida legislation. “This practice disproportionately impacts black Floridians.”
Like Bryant, more than 4 in 10 people released from Florida prison since 2017 are black. Before Amendment 4 was approved, 10% of Florida’s adults — and nearly a quarter of the adult African American population — couldn’t vote. In Florida, felony convictions usually result in a minimum of about $698 in court costs and fees, Lang said, but can be much higher.
Beverlye Colson Neal, 72, president of the local NAACP chapter that includes Orlando, said members of her family were not allowed to vote until the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed; and even then, states and counties found loopholes to suppress the black vote.
“There’s pain,” she said, alluding to when blacks were kept from voting.
For Bryant, who hopes to soon cast his first ballot, voting was once far from his mind.
Bryant was raised by his grandmother, and after she died in the late 1990s, the teenager needed a quick way to support himself. He started selling crack cocaine on the streets of Orlando and, soon after his 18th birthday, was arrested and charged with possessing and selling drugs, a nonviolent felony.
He served his time at a state prison in rural Florida, and not long after his release, Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. Bryant says that he and a friend drove 13 hours north to stand in frigid temperatures and watch the inauguration on the National Mall.
“The joy on people’s faces was something I envied,” he said. “It was clear they took part in history.”
That moment stayed with him.
In 2009, he was hired by an events marketing company, where he now works in the warehouse, taking inventory of supplies. He supports a family of five, he says, on an $18-per-hour salary, leaving him hard-pressed to pay even a bill of $30 a month to a debt-collection agency on the $10,000 he owes in court fees.
“I’m trying to do things right,” Bryant said, “but still it doesn’t matter.”
Bryant — who says he doesn’t have a political party affiliation and would vote based on a candidate’s morals — dreams of casting a ballot. He is informed, he said, and he knows things need to change.
“There’s just a lack of respect being shown by politicians, and it’s trickling into everyday life,” Bryant said on a recent afternoon inside the Orlando warehouse where he works. On his desk are photos of his wife, Kimberly, and their children. “The only way to hold people to be better is to vote.”
Given his inability to pay off his outstanding court fees, Bryant recently signed on as a plaintiff in the ongoing federal lawsuit against the state.
Republican state Rep. James Grant, a sponsor of the legislation, said the currently sidelined law merely clarified the terms of the ballot measure. In Florida, probation cannot be completed until fees and fines are fully paid. Therefore, Grant said, he has no plans to change it when lawmakers return to Tallahassee in January.
A federal trial that will determine whether the legislation is struck down is scheduled for April.
And while paying fees is technically a prerequisite to getting off probation in many states, experts say this is not how it always works in practice. Judges in some states often waive fees deemed excessive so former felons can focus on the already tough battle of finding employment with a criminal record.
For Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that spearheaded Amendment 4, the measure was deeply personal. As one of the 1.4 million, Meade knows the stigma of having a felony conviction. He knows what it feels like to nail a job interview, but then get the dreaded call with additional questions after the background check is completed. He knows how hard it is to find a real estate company to take a chance on you. And those experiences, he said, are a part of what motivated him.
“This is not a partisan issue — not Democrat, not Republican — it’s an issue for the people,” Meade said. “We are focused on returning citizens and helping returning citizens regain the right to vote.”
On a recent muggy afternoon, Eric, 51, and Jonathan, 26, who work for Meade’s organization and asked to be identified only by their first names because of the stigma of being former felons, walked through the Parramore neighborhood, a short drive from downtown Orlando.
Parramore was a segregated neighborhood developed in the late 1800s to house blacks who worked in white households. Today, the neighborhood, where 73% of children live below the poverty line, is one of the few places many ex-felons can afford to live. But even that’s changing, as Parramore has become the home to a new professional soccer stadium and gentrification creeps in from downtown Orlando.
As Eric walked the tree-lined streets, he saw a man standing under the shade of a palm tree in the yard of a single-level house.
“Are you registered to vote?” Eric asked.
“I don’t vote, can’t vote,” the man, who goes by LZ, said, explaining that he had a criminal record. Once Eric started explaining Amendment 4, the man nodded, saying he recalled reading about it in a newspaper. He told Eric that he wanted to research the new law on his own, but would consider registering to vote sometime soon.
“What y’all are doing is some real work,” he said. “Work we can all respect.”
Eric smiled and handed the man an informational flier.
“We’re trying, brother.”