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The state’s appeal to require payment of court fees before voting access is restored would amount to a poll tax, says Phil Telfeyan.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway, your host, coming to you from Baltimore. We have been following so voting rights situation for ex-felons in Florida for the last couple of years. Over 1.4 million people that has been through the Florida prison system and released have lost their right to vote. A couple of years ago, they organized a campaign. The campaign was successful. They’ve got the voting rights initiative put on the ballot. They won by a overwhelming majority, and then the state of Florida state government decided to limit who could actually exercise their right to vote by putting funds and other restrictions on them. To talk about this issue in Florida is Phil Telfeyan, founding director of Equal Justice Under the Law. Thank you for joining me, Phil.

Phil Telfeyan: Thank you, Eddie, thank you for having me on.

Eddie Conway: Around this voting right issue, and it seems like there was a win. Can you update us and tell us what that means?

Phil Telfeyan: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

Eddie Conway: And [inaudible 00:01:22]?

Phil Telfeyan: Absolutely. Voting rights for people in Florida dates back all the way to the Civil War, when Florida, as well as many other Southern states were really trying to figure out really diabolical ways to restrict the rights of former slaves to vote. And what you saw in most of the Southern states, going back to the 1800s, were laws that prevented people from voting if they had prior felony convictions. That combined with racist police practices, meant a whole lot of former slaves and descendants of slaves as the generations passed, were really not able to vote. Florida was one of only four states that permanently prevented people with prior felony convictions from voting.

Well that all changed by ballot initiative. People with prior felony convictions got together in Florida and passed the ballot initiative by a super majority. 64% of Floridians said, “Hey, when you’re done serving your prison sentence, when you’re done with probation and parole, you should be able to vote again. It’s not a lifetime bar.” That measure passed overwhelmingly, and the Florida legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, wasn’t happy. They didn’t want to see a lot of people with prior felony convictions voting. And so the Florida legislature passed what you could really call an amendment to the amendment. The legislature said, “Okay, finish your prison sentence, finish probation and parole, but also you’ve got to pay back any court debts.” These could be fines, court fees, restitution, any kind of court debt that might’ve been attached to your conviction. And for those who can’t pay their court debt under the legislature’s vision, you can’t vote. It really amounted to a poll tax.

Well, a lot of civil rights groups got together and sued in federal court to challenge this poll tax. The federal district court agreed and said, A, it’s racist, B, it’s discriminatory, C, it violates the constitution. You can’t charge a poll tax. You can’t effectively prevent people from voting just because they’re too poor to pay court debts. That case was appealed, and the appellate court also agreed. And so, as it stands right now, the courts are unanimous that in Florida, your inability to pay court debt should be no barrier to voting.

Eddie Conway: Okay, I understand that the state of Florida is probably going to challenge that. What does that mean? Where do they go? Is this the highest court in Florida? Do they go to the federal court next or what’s up?

Phil Telfeyan: So, the case originally started in federal court. The voters, the people with prior felony convictions actually won in the trial court. They’ve already won once on appeal. The appellate court agreed with the trial court and said the proceedings can continue. What happened then was the trial court continued the proceedings, actually held a trial on the issue earlier this year, in April, and issued an opinion agreeing with all the voters, agreeing that folks who have finished serving their prison sentence but are just too poor to pay court debt can register to vote and can vote in this year’s elections, upcoming this November. The state has promised to appeal again. So the state is going to appeal. They’re going to be going to the federal appellate court, which is called the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. That’s a court that oversees multiple states, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida. It’s not just limited to Florida. It’s a federal court.

And the law is very clear. A state cannot condition the right to vote on wealth. Voting is not a privilege that’s only supposed to be accessible to those with money. Voting is universal. Rich, poor, and otherwise, everyone should be able to vote. And I think the 11th Circuit Federal Court will agree with the trial court, will agree with the prior appeal that what the former legislature is trying to do in restricting the ability of people who have finished serving prison time from voting, is illegal.

The final step the state is to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, where I think they will also lose. And I think the state is not a stupid enough, frankly, to try that move. So, the state is running out of options. Court after court has told them, “What you’re trying to do is unconstitutional.” And I hope the state officials realize you can’t prevent people who have finished serving their time from voting solely based on poverty.

Eddie Conway: What about those exceptions? Are those exceptions that they tried to put in there going to be effective? People with prior murder convictions or rape convictions, are they separating those individuals out or did this case cover everyone?

Phil Telfeyan: No, it’s a great question, Eddie. Unfortunately, the case does not cover everyone. The law has two exceptions that you noted. One, those convicted of murder. But the other is huge. It’s not just rape, actually. The second exception is any sex offense. It’s an extremely broad exception. And sex offenses as defined by the Florida state legislature include an entire range of things. Of course, you’d have first degree rape at the extreme end, but many, many other offenses that are a lot less serious, that still qualify as sex offenses. But what you’ll see in Florida is literally thousands, 10s of thousands of people, who are convicted of what the state considers a sex offense, who will never be able to vote in Florida even if they’ve finished serving all of their prison time, even if they’ve finished serving all their probation and parole, they’ve repaid their debt to society.

That exception was built into the original law, unfortunately. Unfortunately, in my opinion. Now, of course, voters approved the law. The exceptions are still there. So those with sex offenses, those who have been convicted of murder, still can’t vote in Florida.

Eddie Conway: Is right now, because the state’s going to file an appeal, all the ex-felons that would be eligible to vote, are they in limbo now until this appeal is filed and heard and resolved or what?

Phil Telfeyan: Well, what I would say for the future is it depends on mobilization. Right now, the current state of affairs is the federal trial court has said that people can not be barred from voting solely because of their inability to pay court debt. So folks who have finished serving their prison time should go ahead and register. I think the appellate court will affirm that ruling, but what’s important now is to go and register. The ruling is currently saying, folks have the right to vote, so that should happen.

Now, the appellate court could take some time. It’s very likely they’ll resolve it before November. Courts understand society, they know the election is coming up, they want to get some finality here. There is a little bit of limbo, but the current status quo is go register to vote. The issue is there are more than a million people in Florida who have prior felony convictions and the law in Florida doesn’t just cover convictions in Florida. If you have a felony conviction from another state, and it may be decades old, it may have been 30, 40 years old, and you may have finished serving your time a long time ago, even if it’s from another state, you were barred from voting in Florida. So there’s quite a lot of folks who are now eligible to vote, should register to vote, and should vote in November.

As you know, Eddie, it’s a turnout question. There’s many, many other ways that powerful forces try to prevent folks from voting, especially in a state like Florida. I mean, Florida has a very, very, very long history of racism. Its done many things, not just disenfranchisement, to try to prevent, not just people with convictions, but also racial and ethnic minorities from getting to the ballot box. This is just one barrier, but at the time being this barrier is out of the way, and the court’s ruling is favorable.

Eddie Conway: Well, if you had something to say to the public, to those million people that are eligible to vote right now, and I heard you say they need to get out, would you have any other advice for them?

Phil Telfeyan: I think there’s two things. First is register to vote and vote in November. And the second is, get rid of the legislators in Florida. I mean, they are really working in Florida to deny the right to vote. The legislature knows that the vast majority of the court debt that’s out there is uncollectible. I mean, when you think about it, when someone finishes serving a prison sentence, they have no job, they have no apartment. If they have family or friends, maybe they can find a place to stay, but a lot of folks are in very unstable housing situations. Repaying court debt, which for the majority of folks is over a thousand dollars, is almost impossible. The state knows that this court that will never be repaid. The state’s not trying to get the money. They’re actually just trying to prevent people from voting, and that’s the problem with the state legislature. They don’t want to see people voting. When that happens, you’ll see a legislature whose interests are contrary to the interests of the voters. Those legislators need to be taken out of office.

So my reaction to this is that people should vote and people should realize their legislature is trying to deny the right to vote. That’s not what you want to see in a legislature, and it’s time to find some elected officials who actually support the rights of people in Florida.

Eddie Conway: Any updates or whatever happens next, can you please get in contact with us so we can cover it?

Phil Telfeyan: I absolutely will, Eddie. This is such an important piece, because it’s affecting over a million people in Florida. Anyone in doubt right now, should know the current state of the law is go vote. Go register, be ready to vote, until told otherwise, but I’ll absolutely keep you and your viewers updated.

Eddie Conway: Yes. And I will comment that Florida is a key state. What happens in Florida in most cases affects the way in which the national elections turn out, and that’s how we ended up with George Bush or somebody.

Phil Telfeyan: Yeah.

Eddie Conway: And so yes, I would encourage anybody that is eligible to get out there and to do it, to go vote.

Phil Telfeyan: [inaudible 00:11:54].

Eddie Conway: Thanks for joining me … Oh, go ahead, Phil.

Phil Telfeyan: I was just going to add, I mean, Eddie, you and I are both old enough to remember in 2000, when the election turned between Al Gore and George Bush on Florida, and it was only by a few hundred votes. They had to do recounts, the Supreme Court got involved. I mean, those of us who were alive remember what was happening in Florida then. Florida is a key swing state. It’s still a very close swing state in every presidential election, not to mention Congress and the Senate. It’s going to be a close race. And whichever side folks are voting on, it’s really important for people to get out to vote, but particularly folks with prior felony convictions. People with felony conviction have been denied the right to vote in Florida for way too long, and finally, finally, the state of Florida has decided enough is enough, we want to see our citizens actually voting. Let’s take them up on that and get out to the voting box.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Thank you, Phil.

Phil Telfeyan: Thank you so much, Eddie.

Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount Danois

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.