Does Florida Really Want Ex-Felons to Vote?

Does Florida Really Want Ex-Felons to Vote?

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The two men were strangers and stood steps from the courthouse that had once sent them both to prison. Julius Irving spoke first.

He said he had come to register potential voters. Florida had recently overturned a lifetime ban on voting for most people who had been convicted of felonies and were free. A big election was on the way this year, and both of them now needed to vote.

But Deontre Washington’s mind was elsewhere as he listened. He thought of the 18-month sentence he had served for a burglary in 2014, when he was homeless and lacked the money to feed his two children. He thought about the Florida prison he was sent to where men were forced to work without pay; he thought about the beatings by guards and the threat of solitary confinement there.

And then he thought out loud.

“I’m not going to vote,” he finally said. “I don’t care about this government and this government doesn’t care about me.”

In 2018, Florida voters passed what became the largest expansion of American voting rights in decades, a state constitutional amendment that allowed most ex-felons to vote in elections. Until then Florida had been one of just four states where having a felony essentially meant losing the right to vote forever.

Almost overnight, an estimated 1.5 million people, nearly 10 percent of voting-aged adults, regained voting rights — all in a key swing state that Donald J. Trump won by less than 113,000 votes in 2016 and George W. Bush by 537 votes in 2000.

Those the voting ban hit hardest were now set to benefit the most: black men like Mr. Irving and Mr. Washington. As Florida’s prison population swelled since the 1980s, so did the number of African-American people who couldn’t vote after they had been freed. By 2016, Florida maintained lifetime voting bans on nearly one in five black people in the state.

Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

Within weeks of the amendment’s passage, Florida’s Republican-led legislature moved to limit it. Last year, the state government passed a law that required former felons to pay all fees from their cases — even the costs accrued to have a public defender — before they voted. Those who didn’t could face another felony charge. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other groups sued on the grounds that the law constituted a poll tax that most could not afford to pay.

A battleground appeared set over the fate of Florida’s votes, ahead of a presidential election, in a state that has often determined the outcome. It remains unresolved before the primary on Tuesday, where Florida has the greatest number of delegates up for grabs.

Yet as Mr. Irving stepped away from Mr. Washington that day, he could see that the chief resistance he faced on the way to canvassing in Gainesville might not have been from Republican lawmakers.

It came from the former felons themselves.

“How do you ask someone to vote for the state that put you away?” said Mr. Irving, who served a one-year prison sentence on drug crimes and now faces new charges that may leave him behind bars again. “In prison you are stripped of your rights. You are treated like an animal. And then you’re going to release someone and tell them to go out and vote? Doesn’t that sound a bit crazy to you?”

The irony that he, the man trying to register people to vote on these street corners, may soon be unable to vote if he loses his trial, isn’t lost on Mr. Irving. At 6-foot-4, with gold front teeth and inked tear drops among the many tattoos he got between stints behind bars since 2006, he looks like many of the former felons he aims to register. Today he works for FLIC Votes, a nonprofit that has a quota of about a dozen new voters a day.

“Did you know that we’re voting for state attorney this year?” he began at a housing project on the east side of Gainesville, as a group of onlookers leaned in over the balcony.

Mention of the prosecutor’s office immediately brings back memories that many residents of the block share, whether the recollections are of their own trial in the courthouse, or a series of court dates that involved a neighbor or a friend. Sometimes there is the story of a plea bargain that the judge didn’t honor. Another may tell of a son bludgeoned by a prison gang.

Rarely does the story end in someone saying they wished to cast a ballot.

“How old are you, bro?” asked Mike Allen, a 51-year-old who stared down Mr. Irving skeptically.

“I’m 32,” said Mr. Irving as a group began to gather and look on.

“I’m old enough to be your father,” said Mr. Allen, who said he was also a former felon. “I have 10 kids. I know how things work around here. I’m not voting, no way.”

“That’s the problem,” said Mr. Irving as he walked away. “This mind-set spreads.”

That Mr. Allen’s words reverberate so strongly here shows another potential effect of Florida’s voting ban well after it was lifted. With so many black men and women barred from the ballot box because of their criminal records, many children grew up in families where no one ever voted. As adults, they never voted themselves.

It’s the latest turn of a cycle that has haunted Southern states for generations, said Gail Johnson, a Gainesville city commissioner who said Florida’s voting restrictions had let politicians ignore black neighborhoods almost continuously since the Jim Crow era, when skin color was explicitly linked to voting rights.

“If someone doesn’t vote for you, do you really have to listen to them?” said Ms. Johnson, who is black. “It’s the way some people view it here.”

Prison recidivism is also a factor. Last March, two months after Florida began receiving registration forms from former felons, a man banged on the window of the restaurant where Mr. Irving was working and began to threaten him, according to court documents. The two men fought each other and Mr. Irving stabbed him with a knife.

Mr. Irving said he was defending himself. The state attorney’s office, referring to his past felony charges, determined the attack was attempted murder, a charge that could carry a sentence of life in prison.

Syraj Syed, a counselor who is working with Mr. Irving before his trial, said the case showed the underlying challenge that Florida faces in making voting citizens of its former felons once again: the revolving door of Florida’s prison system.

“The system is saying, ‘This is the kind of person we want off the street,’” he said of Mr. Irving. “Yet look at Julius. He spends his days before his trial getting people registered to vote. Is this the man we want to strip of his rights all over again?”

Gainesville’s suburban neighborhoods, covered in asphalt and long green lawns, quickly give way at the city’s edge to a flat, Southern landscape of Spanish moss and country roads. A college town that’s home to the University of Florida, Gainesville stands out on the political map as a liberal dot in Florida’s conservative north.

But on issues of law and order, people are more of one mind.

While the university is the region’s biggest employer, a network of 16 prisons surround Gainesville and form an important part of the area’s economy. A popular county judge, David Glant, was once nicknamed “Father Time” for the long sentences he delivered from the bench. After he died in 2013, the courthouse mounted a clock to honor him.

Yet the tough-on-crime culture did not touch everyone equally. A 2018 study by the University of Florida found that black people in Gainesville’s Alachua County were arrested at a rate four times as high as whites. The disparity, the report said, began when black children were still in school, where they were far more likely to be suspended by teachers than their white peers.

Drug offenses, the report found, were committed equally by black and white people in the county, but black people, again, were more likely to be arrested — in large part because their neighborhoods were the most heavily patrolled by the police. The result: Despite being less than a fifth of the county’s population, black people made up 70 percent of prisoners there.

Panagioti Tsolkas, a Gainesville activist who has organized campaigns around prison and voting reform, says the disparity is an inheritance of the city’s segregationist past.

“This is a Reconstruction-era town and we are two blocks from where a Confederate statue stood until recently,” he said at a cafe downtown. “And you come home, and you see prisoners cleaning the streets in front of the university with guards looking over them.”

It’s not a view shared by everyone here, the state attorney among them. Bill Cervone, who has served as the Gainesville region’s top prosecutor since he was elected in 2000, said the long, tough sentencing he had pursued in his career was central to making the city safe by keeping criminals incarcerated.

Asked why more black people were arrested than their white counterparts, Mr. Cervone called the matter “the elephant in the room” that few would discuss in town. His answer: “The fact is, more minority population members commit criminal activity.”

When organizers collected the signatures needed to put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018, it was viewed in some corners of the county with skepticism. Ward Scott, the host of a conservative podcast he records from a cattle ranch outside Gainesville, said that while he believed felons should be able to vote if they paid their debt to society, the amendment’s timing seemed designed to increase liberal turnout in elections.

“It was an attempt to harness the Democratic voter,” he said. “The state of Florida is red.”

For the first time since Gainesville’s founding, its seven-member city commission has two black women, and Mr. Scott, who is white, said there was now an air of “racial retribution” coming from the city government. He said that “it will tend to be corrupt when it’s black folks in charge of other black folks.”

Ms. Johnson, one of the black city commissioners, said she sought no one’s retribution, but rather equal protections for her constituents, including those who committed crimes and now wanted to vote.

She pointed to an affordable housing complex in Gainesville’s center that was demolished in 2009 before her election. About 1,000 residents, largely black, were displaced on the promise that more units would be built on the same site. Instead, Gainesville’s housing corporation sold the land to an Orlando developer to mainly build student housing there. The plan will gentrify a traditionally black neighborhood that had been settled by former slaves after the Civil War, Ms. Johnson said.

It’s possible that many former felons who were returning to Gainesville after prison sentences were living in the complex, she said. But they had little influence in the debate about the site of their homes that took place in city government, she said. In 2009, they couldn’t vote.

Julius Irving’s first big arrest was broadcast on television in Gainesville.

It was 2005, and days before, Mr. Irving had sold two bags of marijuana to undercover police officers. Now they had come to the housing complex where he lived, accompanied by a camera crew, to film his arrest for an episode of “Gainesville Police Beat,” a popular local show.

“I heard, boom, boom, boom!” he said of the knocking on the door as he played cards with his friends inside that day. “They arrested me and put me in handcuffs.”

Mr. Irving had just turned 18, voting age.

He served a 90-day sentence in the county jail, and said it was a revelation.

“All my friends I hadn’t seen in a while, this is where they were,” he recalled after being shown his cell block. “I thought, ‘Wow, I didn’t know where you’d gone, and, well, this is where you’d been the whole time.’”

He was released that year. But the arrest had led to his mother’s being kicked out of public housing, and the family moved to a part of Gainesville called “the Bottom,” a largely black cul-de-sac where the family could afford rent.

Mr. Irving wasn’t able to find work. So he began to deal drugs in earnest, mainly marijuana, which was easy to find. He eventually moved in with a half sister, Jhody Polk, whom he was close to, and her infant son’s father, who had recently gotten out of jail after robbery charges. When Mr. Irving was about 21, the police found drugs that belonged to Ms. Polk during a search, he said. Mr. Irving said he confessed instead, allowing his sister to keep supporting the family in her work as a licensed bail bondsperson.

“If I go to jail, I don’t lose anything,” he recalled saying to Ms. Polk. “If you go to jail, you lose your job, your family falls apart. We’ve got to do it this way.”

But by the time he was released after yet another arrest six months later, Ms. Polk, who had began selling drugs during an ecstasy boom in Florida and served a previous prison sentence, was back in prison too. Mr. Irving’s brother was also in jail, leaving only Mr. Irving, his mother and two small nephews on the outside.

This wouldn’t be for long, however. In 2008, Mr. Irving received a one-year sentence, this time in state prison, a period of time that he said would leave him changed for the worse.

Before that time, Mr. Irving had been sent to county jails, where the setting and people were always familiar. This time, his drug charges sent to him to New River Correctional Institute, in Raiford, part of Florida’s vast prison network that houses its most serious offenders.

Mr. Irving was taken to a prisoner’s reception center on a bus. He and dozens of other prisoners were ordered to strip naked, then ordered to pull back their penis foreskins and spread their buttocks as guards looked for drugs.

Mr. Irving was questioned about his skills: What did he know about plumbing? Could he do electrical work? One of the guards shaved his head. He was then pushed into a shower with dozens of other naked men before they were finally given a uniform.

The experience was humiliating, Mr. Irving recalled.

“My name was no longer Julius,” he said. “It was ‘Inmate G-12602.’”

Mr. Irving said he lived in the shadow of prison guards who expressed white supremacist views to the prisoners. One wore a mustache meant to resemble Adolf Hitler’s, Mr. Irving said. Another referred to Barack Obama, then the president, as “the Antichrist.”

When another prisoner thought Mr. Irving had stolen his remittance money, Mr. Irving said guards helped him into the laundry room where Mr. Irving worked and locked the door. The two men fought until the other man couldn’t get up.

The guards did nothing to intervene, Mr. Irving said.

It left a growing anger in Mr. Irving, which he began directing toward the state in whose custody he now lived.

“This made me not trust this government,” he said. “How could you? This is how the government truly is. How could they have my best interests in mind in any way?”

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections said that Mr. Irving had not filed a complaint about his treatment and that it was “very difficult to substantiate or refute the claims.”

Mr. Irving’s breaking point came when he was assigned to work at a lumber mill that uses prison labor under a contract with Florida’s state government. He was paid 25 cents an hour, far from the $8.46 minimum wage he’d been paid outside prison.

Mr. Irving said he became an agitator at the mill, encouraging others to quit. His supervisors warned him to stop. One day, he began screaming at people and lost control.

“I said, I’m not doing this,” he recalled. “This is slavery.”

He was sent to solitary confinement for a month.

“You hear people in other cells screaming and losing their minds,” he said. “Those 30 days gave me compassion for the other men being broken inside there.”

Mr. Irving was released from prison in 2009. But more than decade later, his job as a canvasser brings those memories to the surface, especially when the potential voter in front of him is someone who has also been to prison.

Especially when that person’s answer to him is “no.”

Looking at his clipboard, full of forms for the Florida Voter Registration Application, he said, “I think they’re right.”

Jhody Polk’s time behind bars was different from her brother Mr. Irving’s. She was sentenced to a longer term — eight years in prison — and became a jailhouse lawyer there, unofficially defending prisoners. When Ms. Polk was released, she earned a fellowship from the Open Society Foundations to continue that work. She campaigned to restore voting rights to former felons, largely because it would allow her to qualify for the Florida bar.

When the phone rang one afternoon last March, the last person she expected to be asked to defend was her own brother. He was on the line.

After a decade, Mr. Irving was back in jail on a felony charge because of that incident at work: He’d gotten into an argument with a fellow employee at Krispy Kreme. The worker had called her boyfriend, who drove up and began to threaten Mr. Irving while banging on the glass window. The two men fought behind the restaurant until Mr. Irving drew a knife and stabbed the boyfriend, Mr. Irving said.

While the man survived, Mr. Irving was charged with attempted first-degree murder, with prosecutors citing his criminal record.

Ms. Polk was devastated. A conviction could mean a life sentence. It would almost certainly mean he could not vote this year.

“I just refuse to think of my brother having to go back,” Ms. Polk said.

That week was the same week the Florida Legislature began crafting the bill that would limit voting to former felons who had paid restitution, fines and court fees.

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sided with a lower court and ruled that the ban was unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction. But Republicans have said they want the case heard by the Supreme Court before making any change to the law.

It’s already had a chilling effect on canvassers: Many are no longer registering those who aren’t certain their fines, sometimes decades old, are paid. Under the new law, voting with any outstanding fines could lead to a perjury charge.

“People here were like, ‘I told you so,’” Ms. Polk said of the law. “It was the nail in the coffin: The system wanted to keep people out.”

The two siblings now spend many of their days at the Alachua County Courthouse as jury selection nears for Mr. Irving’s trial, expected in April. Ms. Polk feels that Florida law allows him to claim self-defense under its so-called Stand Your Ground law, made famous after the Trayvon Martin killing. But Mr. Irving’s public defender, Bill Miller, didn’t agree to use it as a defense, Ms. Polk said.

Mr. Irving, who has no home, spends many nights sleeping in his car. During the days he still goes out to canvass, where he earns $15 an hour. His quota is 10 new signatures a day.

In a neighborhood called Linton Oaks, he came across Kell Rell, a 22-year-old musician who was waiting for a ride.

Mr. Irving launched in to his pitch once again, pointing to a police patrol nearby and referring to the coming election for county sheriff. He said that a new sheriff might make sure that more black officers were sent to black neighborhoods.

But Mr. Rell wasn’t convinced that would change anytime soon. A car rolled up and he got in.

“I totally respect him for not signing the form,” Mr. Irving said. “Sometimes I’m out here and I feel like a hypocrite doing this.”

As his trial date nears, Mr. Irving has become more interested in those who exerted their influence outside the political system rather than trying to transform it through voting.

He talked about African-American nationalists in the 1960s and the Black Panther Party that emerged from poor black neighborhoods in Oakland, Calif. He talked about Malcolm X, who he said he admired for never thinking that votes alone would transform life for black people.

Malcolm X also went to prison, Mr. Irving said.

“In Gainesville some people see results, and they believe in voting because they see things happening for them,” he said, adding those people didn’t grow up in Sugar Foot, the neighborhood where he did.

“Sugar Foot has never seen any changes,” he said. “We’re still going to jail. The judges will still give us more time for the same charges. And we won’t find housing no matter who is the president.”

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