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First Time Voters March To Polls In Miami Thanks To Amendment 4

A group of people who got their voting rights back thanks to Amendment 4 march to the polls, along with a group of supporters.
Daniel Rivero
A group of people who got their voting rights back thanks to Amendment 4 march to the polls, along with a group of supporters.

Ijamyn Gray had never voted before in his 40 years. And he admits that when he went to prison in his 20s, he didn’t care much for voting. All that changed after he got out of prison and started to piece his life back together. But all of that reform meant little if he could still not cast a ballot.

“This is a historic moment for myself,” he said on Tuesday, the day he cast the first vote of his life.

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A group of returning citizens gathered at the headquarters of Circle of Brotherhood, a Liberty City nonprofit, Tuesday. From there they marched to the early voting site at the Model City Branch Library a few blocks away.

All of them gained the right to vote thanks to Florida voters passing Amendment 4 in 2018, which ended Florida’s lifelong ban on voting for people with felony convictions. For about a dozen, it was the first time they ever voted.

“I understand now that voting is very important to us when it comes to local elections,” said Gray. “Too many times they have us focused on the presidential race. But the presidential race is really not what matters to us. What matters to us is the things that go on around us, like the commissioners, the mayors, our state attorneys, our state representatives, our senators, our judges, and the list goes on and on.”

The executive director of the nonprofit that organized the march, Lyle Muhammad, stressed to the group that local elections are just as important if not more important as federal elections. And so, he said, a local election is the perfect entryway for participating in a democracy.

“The largest changeover in leadership that this county has seen in decades is about to take place,” Muhammad told the group.

About 20 people with felony convictions joined the march to cast early ballots. All of them had paid all the fines and fees connected to their cases before registering to vote, fulfilling the requirements of a controversial state law passed after Florida voters Amendment 4. There’s still an ongoing legal dispute about whether people who owe money connected to their cases can vote. Arguments for the case in a federal appeals court are scheduled to take place Aug. 18, Florida’s primary day.

“I was up all night. I’ve been waiting on this for the past, I’ll say, 11 years,” said Deshaun Jones, of Miami Gardens.

Ever since getting out of prison she cleaned up her life, went back to school and got a good job as a social worker. To mark the first time she would ever cast a ballot she wore a homemade black and pink t-shirt that symbolized how far she had come in those 11 years.

“My shirt says 'She’s Been Reformed,’” she explained. “I have a DC number — which is Dade County Corrections — crossed out. And I have my voter registration number checked. So I’m no longer a felon — in my eyes I’m not. I have gotten my rights back and I’m currently a citizen who can vote.”

As the group marched to the early voting site, neighbors gathered to cheer them on. Residents leaned over the balconies of an apartment building to offer encouraging words.

After casting her ballot, Jones’ homemade shirt now had a sticker on it. It read: “I Voted.”

“My daughter is asking me to send pictures right now, she’s texting me,” she said, elated. “She was gonna come out. She’s 20 years old, she’s so excited, more than excited. She’s sharing everything for me, she’s talking about it to her friends, you know. I am what reform looks like to her also. I was gone a year out of her life. So this makes a big deal to her too.”

Jones smiled as big as she could and hugged her friend who came with her to vote. She took a few steps away, snapped a selfie and sent it to her daughter.