20 formerly incarcerated people in Florida are facing charges for exercising their right to vote in the 2020 election. In 2018, a ballot referendum in Florida passed Amendment Four, granting certain former felons the right to vote. While the victory of Amendment Four was celebrated by many, lawmakers in Florida had other plans. A law was passed through the state legislature which stipulated that former felons eligible to vote under Amendment Four could only do so if they paid all their outstanding fines and fees. This legal loophole is now being used to charge formerly incarcerated Floridians with voter fraud. Florida State Representative Anna Eskamani joins The Real News editor-in-chief Maximillian Alvarez and Rattling the Bars co-host Mansa Musa to explain what’s behind this latest attack on voting rights.
Anna Vishkaee Eskamani is a member of the Florida House of Representatives from the 47th district in Orange County.
Studio: Kayla Rivara, Dwayne Gladden
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us.
Mansa Musa: And I’m Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway of Rattling the Bars. As well, it’s great to have you with us today.
Maximillian Alvarez: The Real News is an independent, viewer supported, nonprofit media network. That means that instead of relying on corporate cash and billionaires, we need each one of you to invest in the work of our journalists so that we can strengthen and expand our coverage of the voices and issues that you care about most. So please take a moment to click the link in the show notes or head on over to therealnews.com/support and become a monthly sustainer of our work. Thank you so much to all of you who are supporters already.
As the US barrels towards a high stakes round of midterm elections that are set to take place on Tuesday, November 8, voting rights advocates around the country continue to sound the alarm about widespread voter disenfranchisement. Recently in the state of Florida, onlookers have been shocked and horrified by viral stories of formerly incarcerated people being arrested and charged for voting.
As Amy Sherman reported in September, “After much debate in 2018, Floridians decided to amend the state’s Constitution so certain felons, once out of prison, could regain the right to vote. Floridians were persuaded that felons who did not commit major crimes such as murder or sexual assault should have a say in issues that affect everyday life. Four years later, some felons are finding themselves facing charges again, this time for voting. About 20 people have been charged with false affirmation in voting or elections and voting as an unqualified elector in the 2020 election.” And keep in mind, this was written in September.
“These are third degree felonies, and convictions can lead to five years in a Florida prison. So far, 19 of the 20 have been arrested. Some of the people arrested say they thought they could register to vote and participate in elections. ‘I don’t really understand, how did I commit fraud?’ Leo Grant Jr., a 55-year-old Palm Beach resident, told the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. ‘I don’t understand any of this stuff.'” What do these heartbreaking arrests mean for the state of voting rights in Florida? What effects will they have on voter turnout in general and on the lives of formerly incarcerated voters themselves? And what can people do to push back?
Mansa Musa: Here today to talk about this, we are honored to have Representative Anna Eskamani. Representative Anna Eskamani is a Florida State representative, representing the 47th district in Orange County. Welcome Representative Eskamani.
Rep. Anna Eskamani: Thank you so much for having me.
Mansa Musa: Okay, let’s just open the door and unpack this. Educate our listeners and the viewers on what is going on in Florida as it relates to voting rights and, more specifically, the rights of returning citizens.
Rep. Anna Eskamani: Well, let’s start from the beginning. I think it’s important to set the stage for folks to understand that Florida has one of the largest incarceration populations in the country. In fact, it can be even compared to other countries, just the number of people we incarcerate, often on nonviolent drug offenses. And of course when you visit state prisons like I do, you’ll see that the majority of those who face incarceration are going to be people of low wealth and/or people of color. There’s a huge disparity among Black men being most impacted. And you see that same impact in the juvenile system as well. So we have a serious issue when it comes to mass incarceration and not looking at other interventions to support people who might be going through a crisis, to prevent them from having to enter the judicial system.
Now with that context given, under our past governors, we actually saw automatic restoration of rights. Meaning that once someone served their time, they were able to actually have their rights be restored and be a voter again, which we know is a really key component of someone being made whole again. The ability to serve your time, go through rehabilitation, and then be able to find a job, find a home, restart your life, and vote are essential characteristics of being a fully productive member of American society. And yet, under then Governor Rick Scott, and, of course, Governor Ron DeSantis, that type of automatic restoration has come to an end. It is nearly impossible for someone to restore their rights in Florida, and that was until we had Amendment Four.
And for those who remember, Amendment Four was a statewide bound Amendment led by the citizens, it was a petition drive. Organizations like Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, ACLU, and others were big partners in making this happen. And to make a long story shorter, Floridians passed Amendment Four, which allowed for the restriction rights, as was mentioned in the introduction.
But then you fast forward to the Florida legislature, lawmakers, predominantly led by the Republican Party, did not like rights restoration. They saw it as a means that would give more people, particular people of color, the right to vote, and they opposed that. So what they did was put into place what they call an implementing bill, what we call an interference bill, to then require that all fines and fees be paid off before you have your rights restored. And candidly, Florida does not even have a system for people to determine what they owe in fines and fees. And so you’re already creating, essentially, a poll tax that predominantly impacts people of low wealth, communities of color, men, and it feeds into a vicious cycle that was already really broken.
If you thought that was already bad, just wait for it. So the past legislative session, Governor Ron DeSantis pushes this bill that has an election’s police force in it, which we already knew was super problematic and unnecessary, because, candidly, Florida had a very smooth 2020 election. In fact, Governor DeSantis bragged about how well Florida’s elections went compared to other states. And yet feeding into the big lie, feeding into conservative extremism, he goes through all these talking points and crafts this bill to create a police force housed under his authority, essentially. And so after this is established, the policy passes by party line vote, Governor DeSantis, a few months later, does this big press conference announcing, as was already mentioned, arrest of returning citizens, saying that they committed voter fraud. And what we are finding, which was my prediction from the very beginning…
So these were not cases of voter fraud. These were Floridians that had served their time and were given permission by the state to vote. And after they voted, not knowing what they were doing was not under the current statute or the definition of Amendment Four, they’ve been hunted down, essentially like entrapment where they were given permission to vote, they voted, and now they, essentially, were arrested again.
And it just breaks my heart when you watch the body cam footage, as I know many people have, because we’re talking about elders, we’re talking about folks that have served their time, and they’ve done everything right since then, and to the point where even law enforcement were confused as to why these people were being arrested. And as these cases are now going to court, one was already dismissed by a judge, but the intent of Governor DeSantis to scare returning citizens from voting and to particularly target people of color, I’m sad to say, has worked. And that was his intention all along. His intention all along was to, essentially, pursue voter suppression and scare people from voting.
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh man, I am barely containing my rage right now, because as you mentioned, we’ve all seen these body cam videos of elder returning citizens who were told that they had the right to vote, essentially, as you also mentioned, being entrapped by the state and now being rounded up and arrested for exercising that right. I mean, it really is just mind melting how cruel this is. And actually, I have a follow-up question about DeSantis and the voting law that you mention.
But actually I’m thinking before we get there, Mansa, I kind of wanted to bring you in here and kind of ask, as a returning citizen yourself, if you could talk a little bit about what Representative Eskamani said, what it means to have that fundamental right to vote in this country, and what it’s like for folks who are coming out of the prison system trying to navigate that journey to reclaim their full citizenship and their full personhood in a country that makes it so hard to do so.
Mansa Musa: And you know what, Max, as Representative Eskamani was laying, making the case about, this fascist policies that’s taking place in Florida, I was sitting back saying to myself, what are we having a conversation about? A person wanting to exercise their right to be a citizen, and nothing more. I ain’t going to the store and stealing no bread. I ain’t robbing nobody. I ain’t hit nobody in the head. I wasn’t selling drugs. All I was doing was my civic duty. And to your point, when I got out, and in the District of Columbia, they’re voter friendly when it comes to returning citizens, and we had lobbied to get the rights restored. So when we lobby to get the rights restored, it made everybody feel like they had a sense of purpose now, that I served my time, I’m a citizen, I’m being recognized now as a citizen, because now I have a right to vote.
And we were encouraging people to vote, and people were walking around, returning citizens walking around with the stickers they give you after you vote, I voted. And at one point in time we were locked out of this process, but now we have this right to do it. And in 2022 to find ourselves in this place of Georgia, Alabama, 1960 Ku Klux Klan, stalking the polls to have us in this state of mind where now we legislate this terror and lock people up, it’s beyond my imagination. My heart goes out to the brothers and sisters that thought they were doing no wrong, and I know they’re traumatized by it because all they thought they were doing was their civic duty. When is your civic duty criminal?
Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s so powerfully put. And to go back to what Representative Eskamani was saying, I mean, what is especially, I think, sinister about all of this is that it uses the pretext of protecting democracy, protecting safe voting, which, as we already mentioned, DeSantis was out there touting the Florida electoral process in 2020, but is now using that same process to hunt people down for being entrapped by this system that is unclear, apparently, to even people working in the government.
Representative Eskamani, I wanted to kind of like… you mentioned this already, but I feel like this will now be a leading question since we already talked about it, but I think it’s worth asking. So as you mentioned, back in April, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new voting law that he and Republicans claimed would improve election security by requiring election supervisors to clean up voter rolls every year rather than every two years, and establishing a statewide office of election crimes and security to investigate election irregularities. Now, voting advocates, much like yourself, have criticized the law saying it created more opportunities for voters to be wrongly purged from the rolls and intimidated by investigators from the new office.
So at the time that he signed this Bill, DeSantis said, “20 years ago, nobody thought Florida was a prime example of how to conduct elections,” referring, of course, to the infamous debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. But he continues, “We have become a national leader by running the most secure elections in the country.” So Representative Eskamani, I guess I wanted to ask, would you agree with that assessment from Governor DeSantis?
Rep. Anna Eskamani: Well, what I want to add to so much of this is that this policy by Governor Ron DeSantis is not only designed to scare people from voting, but it sets a tone for the future of our state where the value of a returning citizen is less than. And the reality is, as Mansa was just talking about, for our returning citizens, it’s very difficult to be able to get back into everyday life and to, essentially, avoid falling into pitfalls. Whether it’s because of housing discrimination or job discrimination, we haven’t banned the box in Florida, and so we continuously are allowing these broken systems to perpetuate, and those who are mostly impacted our everyday people. But this is not the only time Governor DeSantis has done this and it won’t be the last. And what’s super ironic is that there are situations of voter fraud in the state.
For example, Florida Power and Light is the state’s largest utility company, they’re a for-profit company, they have been caught funding fake candidates in at least three different competitive state Senate races and one competitive House race. This is a major corporation funneling millions of dollars to prop up fake candidates that stole votes away from Democrats. They’re not being held accountable at all in the state of Florida.
We also have people in the villages who voted twice, many of them self-professed Trump supporters. And then you had a situation in South Florida where Florida Republican-paid canvassers were knocking on the door of elders telling them that they need to change their registration and they would check off the Republican box for them even though they didn’t ask for that. So we actually have legitimate situations of voter fraud here in the state of Florida, but Governor Ron DeSantis is doing nothing about it, and instead he’s demonized returning citizens, he’s weaponizing state agencies to go after specific communities of people.
And I’m sure it’s under the assumption that returning citizens are going to overwhelmingly vote a certain political way, but based on the people who were arrested, for those who’ve spoken to media and have shared their stories, we know that at least one of them voted for President Trump. So it’s not even accurate to say that the returning citizens vote a certain political way. At the end of the day, these are individual people who have gone through the legal system, have served their time, and deserve to be treated as human beings. And yet, today in Florida, they are political props. And it’s something that every person, no matter your political affiliation, should be sickened by. Because If they can entrap one population of people, what’s to stop them from doing that to other groups of people?
Mansa Musa: And Representative, speak on what we can do, what our listeners and our viewers can do to support correcting this injustice that’s taking place in Florida now, and more importantly, how they can become more involved in this narrative.
Rep. Anna Eskamani: Absolutely. I mean, my first recommendation is to follow the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, or FRRC. This is an organization that has been founded by Desmond Meade alongside Neil Volz. These are two returning citizens who led the charge for Amendment Four, and right now they’ve established a legal fund to help those who have been impacted by these arrests under the Governor’s elections police force. And so every one of these individuals has access to these legal resources. We want to make sure that’s well funded and that we get these cases dismissed.
But I also think it’s important that for those of us who have the privilege to vote, that we vote for candidates and elected officials who don’t weaponize their agencies, that don’t divide us, that don’t try to make it harder for people to vote, but instead unite us, instead see the power of people going to the polls, help voters become more informed, not scared.
And we do have those options on our ballot this year. We can vote for people that actually see the judicial system for what it is, as something that is broken, that needs reform. Or you can vote for folks who weaponize their positions of power to maintain control. And so to really do your research, and for those who have the privilege to vote to please vote, because there are so many others who can’t. And when we make that decision at the ballot box, we’re not just voting our own self-interest, we’re also voting for the collective good, and we should not take that for granted.
Mansa Musa: Well said. Well said.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Democratic Florida State Representative Anna Eskamani. Eskamani is a member of the Florida House of Representatives, representing the 47th District in Orange County. Representative Eskamani, thank you so much for joining us today on The Real News Network.
Rep. Anna Eskamani: Thank you for having me.
Maximillian Alvarez: For my intrepid co-host, Mansa Musa, who you can catch every week on Rattling the Bars, premiering every Monday on the Real News Network YouTube channel, and myself, this is Maximillian Alvarez. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.