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Formerly Incarcerated Women Speak Out On Voting Rights For Florida Felons

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Monique Upshaw
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WLRN
Monique Upshaw, who was incarcerated, now works at LEAP's Dragonfly Thrift Boutique in Miami.

After voters passed an amendment that restores felons' voting rights in 2018, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill prohibiting convicted felons from voting until they pay all their fees. Many voting rights activists call this a poll tax.

During the 2018 midterm election, Florida voters passed Amendment 4. It allows convicted felons to regain their right to vote after they complete their sentence unless they are convicted of murder or of a felony sexual offense.

“When the amendment was approved, I was surprised and elated and really excited to be able to have my opinion and my vote count,” Rebecca “Cafe” Brown said.

She was formerly incarcerated, and now she’s on the board of directors for Ladies Empowerment Action Program (LEAP), a nonprofit organization that mentors and educates women in prison on employment, entrepreneurship and life skills.

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Brown first heard about Amendment 4 in 2018. She was released from prison in 2016, so she knew she was eligible to get her voting rights restored.

“I was the first one in LEAP to vote,” Brown said. “It was amazing. I put it on social media and everything.”

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Rebecca Brown
Rebecca "Cafe" Brown, a convicted felon, regained her voting rights for the 2020 presidential election. When she was released from prison in 2016, LEAP helped her get a job working as a chef at Camillus House in Miami.

Brown voted early, and she bought Joe Biden-branded clothes and hats just for the occasion.

“I was so excited to vote blue,” she said.

But, unlike Brown, there are still hundreds of thousands of Floridians with prior felony convictions who cannot vote. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7066, which prohibits convicted felons from voting until they pay court fees, restitution and other fines.

The new law angered many voting rights activists across the state. They claimed this policy was similar to a "poll tax," which was federally abolished in 1964.

Brown recalls feeling aggravated and upset when she heard the legislature passed the bill. She says it’s a loophole to try to keep people down.

“It isn’t fair,” she said. “I’m just glad that I personally had already gotten all that paid off, but I mean, there’s so many people who haven’t.”

Monique Upshaw is one of the many convicted felons who cannot vote. She’s also a LEAP mentee, and she heard about Amendment 4 in 2016 while she was still in prison.

“It’s like, ‘We’re getting a chance. I can vote again!’” Upshaw said. “The world is changing, which is a good thing to give us another chance because we’re human too.”

Upshaw was crushed when she found out about Senate Bill 7066. She says not letting convicted felons vote until they pay off fines means government officials don’t really care about their vote. They only want something from them.

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Monique Upshaw
Even though Monique Upshaw can't vote during this year's general election, she's confident that one day she will restore her voting rights.

“I’m a free woman, and it’s like another roadblock of letting me know that I’m still in the system,” Upshaw said. “They’re reminding me of who I was, and it hurts.”

She added that the new law disproportionately affects people of color.

“I think it definitely affects our culture and what we had to go through decades ago,” she said. “I think it just brings back memories, you know, hurts and pains, and just the people we lost just to get our voting rights.”

Like other disenfranchised Floridians, Upshaw says it’s hard to get politically engaged when you can’t vote.

“I can’t even say, ‘I don’t want this person to be my president,’” Upshaw said. “I feel like I don’t have a say.”

Voting rights activists and organizations continue to push toward overturning Senate Bill 7066. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up cases that challenge the law back in July. But Upshaw still remains hopeful.

“I believe that one day I will regain my right to vote."