Even while he was caught up in street life on the South Side of Chicago, Aaron Smith knew he had a civic duty. The college graduate was misusing his business education to hustle heroin, but come election time, he would be filling out his ballot from top to bottom.
“Local governments are really what’s going to affect you directly, from city council to judges,” said the 41-year-old, who served 10 years in federal prison on drug-related conspiracy charges. “I always voted even when I was in my mess in the streets.”
After his release in 2019, Smith was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to vote because of his conviction. Most states place voting restrictions on at least some people with criminal histories, with the exception of Maine and Vermont, as did Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Luckily for Smith, Illinois restored his voting rights once he finished his prison sentence. Still, he’s increasingly worried about those in other states where formerly incarcerated people have been charged with voter fraud.
“I think in today’s climate, unfortunately, this will deter a lot of people because no one wants to put themselves in that kind of jeopardy again,” Smith said. “Once you’ve been incarcerated, you know that life and you don’t want to get caught up in that on a technicality for trying to go vote.”
The patchwork laws that govern voting access for people with felonies vary widely from state to state. In some, like Illinois, voting privileges are restored once a person’s prison sentence is served. In others, voting access doesn’t kick in until the end of parole or until certain fines or restitution are paid. And in still other states, a felony conviction results in permanent loss of access to the ballot box.
The number of Americans disenfranchised because of their criminal records peaked in 2016, when more than 6.1 million people were ineligible to vote because they were currently or formerly incarcerated or were on probation or parole, according to estimates published this week by The Sentencing Project. Since then, nine states and Washington, D.C., have changed their laws and policies, and the number of disenfranchised people has decreased to 4.6 million, including 1.5 million Black people.
But with that decline has come a backlash. Some states are cracking down on voters with felony convictions, arresting and even jailing them on allegations of fraud that result from mistakes or confusion amid the evolving voter restrictions.
In Florida, state police arrested 20 formerly incarcerated people this summer — most of them Black — on voter fraud charges, which carry a sentence of up to five years in prison. The arrests followed investigations by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new election fraud team, and in police footage released by the Tampa Bay Times this month, even the officers appear confused as to why they were making the arrest.
A Florida judge tossed the charges in one of those cases last week.
“They are sending a clear message. This is a national intimidation — in my opinion — a national intimidation effort for those with arrest and conviction records, who are predominantly people of color,” said Avalon Betts-Gaston, project manager for the Illinois Alliance for Reentry & Justice, during a press call for The Sentencing Project’s report on Tuesday. “When society was no longer able to just outright ban us from voting, they came up with creative ways to do that, and that was through the criminal punishment system. And what they are doing is to continue to perpetuate that process, that Jim Crow process.”
Florida isn’t alone. In Texas, Crystal Mason was convicted of intentionally voting in the 2016 election while on probation for a federal felony tax fraud conviction. Texas does not allow anyone on parole, probation, or in prison to vote, but Mason has argued that she didn’t know she wasn’t ineligible. Nonetheless, she was convicted and faces five years in prison. The case is under review with the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals.
In Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activist Pamela Moses was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for illegally registering to vote. Moses said she believed that she had completed the terms of that sentence, and her probation officer testified that they didn’t know her conviction is one of the few that Tennessee lists as ineligible to vote. The conviction was overturned in February, prosecutors dismissed the charges in August, and Moses filed a lawsuit on Tuesday for wrongful prosecution, The Guardian reported.
These voter-suppression efforts are “a message to legislators that ‘We need to keep the status quo, because it’s working in our favor. We can continue to use the Jim Crow relic to disenfranchise people of color from being a part of our democracy’ and therefore continuing to shut us out from being participants in society in that way,” Betts-Gaston said.
The Battle in Florida
Floridians voted in November 2018 for a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment that allows formerly incarcerated people to re-register to vote, excluding those convicted of murder and sex-related offenses. The initiative empowered more than 900,000 Florida residents, including 291,811 Black people, to vote in the 2020 presidential election.
But that victory for advocates was short-lived. The following year, DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066, which now bars the ballot to those with outstanding court fines, fees, and restitution, effectively denying the franchise to those who are impoverished or low income.
Then in May 2021, DeSantis signed Senate Bill 90, which added more voting limitations, including ID requirements and bans on providing snacks and water to people in voting lines. At the time of the bill’s signing, DeSantis said it would “increase transparency and strengthen the security of our elections.”
“The only people who will be impacted by these measures are those who intend to commit fraud within Florida’s elections,” said Bryan Griffin, press secretary for DeSantis’ office, on Thursday.
The changing and compounding rules fueled confusion.
With Election Day less than two weeks away, advocates say Republican leaders’ tactics amount to fearmongering. They’re concerned that, in states with convoluted voting laws and policies, formerly incarcerated people will be intimidated into not showing up to their polling station or mailing their ballot.
As a preventive measure, Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the organization has created a pathway for attorneys to receive free training to provide pro bono legal services for citizens who re-registered to vote after a prison sentence and want to cast their ballot. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition also provides assistance with court-mandated fees that could protect a voter from prosecution.
Scoon advises concerned voters to check their registration status ahead of time to ensure they’re eligible to vote, even if they have a verified voter registration card. The League of Women Voters provides a hotline for formerly incarcerated people who need assistance with their voter eligibility status, (407) 710-5496, or via email at CanIVote@lwvfl.org.
Florida’s outdated system for tracking formerly incarcerated people’s records and voting eligibility contributes to the confusion, Scoon said, so it’s easy for people with past convictions to make a mistake.
“They’re trying to get all these individuals, some of them have seventh-grade education, limited resources. They don’t have a way to get hundreds of pages of records to check everything. Many of them don’t have the internet, they don’t have a computer,” said Scoon. “Really, what’s going on is the system that the government created is built on a stack of cards.”
Scoon and other advocates believe that the actions taken by DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers are an intentional effort to suppress votes.
Texas resident Jorge Renaud, who is on parole for a 1991 robbery conviction, won’t be eligible to vote until his parole ends in 2051. He said he still feels “fully incarcerated” because the “duties of citizenship always conveys a sense of belonging,” and not being able to vote makes him feel like he’s not an American citizen.
“I understand the vital importance of voting and … the disenfranchisement of people of certain communities are intentional, and it’s intended to deny power to those communities,” said Renaud, the national criminal justice director for LatinoJustice, during the Tuesday press conference. “I pay taxes, but the duty, the rights, and the responsibility to make you feel a part of your community are always going to be denied to me.”