Cheers erupted in a Miami-Dade County courtroom on Friday, as more than a dozen people with felony convictions had their right to vote restored by a judge.
The mass court hearing was part of a brand new process created by the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, along with Miami-Dade’s offices of the State Attorney, the Public Defender, and the Clerk of Courts.
“Today was an unexpected but pleasurable, enjoyable, rememberable, priceless moment in my life,” said Carmen Brown, the first to have her rights restored. “I’m grateful for the people who went out and voted for Amendment 4.”
Brown filled out a voter registration form on the spot. She plans to cast a ballot in the 2020 election, the first time she can do so since 1995.
The new process was developed after the passage of Amendment 4, which ended Florida’s lifelong voting ban for people with felony convictions, and the subsequent passage of SB 7066, which made it so all “financial obligations” related to a felony have to be paid before someone can vote.
But while SB 7066 tied the right to vote to paying financial obligations, the state law also left open the possibility that judges can declare if someone has completed all the terms of their sentence, regardless of whether money is owed. The Miami-Dade County program was created in order to streamline cases where people still owe money, to allow the maximum amount of people to vote.
And because the rights restoration process was created under the existing statute, it is not subject to the confusion and legal questions surrounding an ongoing federal lawsuit and a Florida Supreme Court review, both relating to SB 7066.
“Today our returning citizens have the right to vote restored,” declared Judge Nushin Sayfie at the beginning of the hearing. She called the collaboration between different parts of local government a “legitimate and efficient process” that will strengthen democracy.
Everyone who regained their right to vote was given two copies of a court order titled: “Order Finding Defendant’s Sentence Is Completed For The Exclusive Purpose Of Restoring Right To Vote”. They could keep one copy for themselves, and give the second to a Supervisor of Elections office, if necessary.
Dolce Bastien had waited years to regain the right to vote. For the occasion when he would finally be granted it, he sported a pin on his golden vest commemorating the Black Voting Rights March, the action that brought about the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“This is the followup of what took place years ago, as African-Americans struggled to gain the rights to vote,” said Bastien. “I have a second chance to be able to obtain something that they fought long and hard a long time ago for, which is the right to vote and make a difference in this country.”
After getting his rights restored, he could hardly contain himself. He also registered to vote on the spot. “It’s a feeling that is hard to even describe I’m so excited, I feel like my face is about to crack I’m smiling so much,” said Bastien.
“I feel really excited, I feel great, because I’ve been a convicted felon for so long,” said Cynthia Cray, who hasn’t been able to vote for ten years. “We got Donald Trump in that presidency. We can’t keep having that foolishness. I'll vote because I don’t want another Trump.”
A joyous mood spread through the courtroom, especially with the arrival of singer John Legend, who showed up to watch and support the process. Legend has an advocacy organization called FreeAmerica.
“One of the issues that we’ve been focused on is re-enfranchisement,” said Legend in comments to the press. His group helped get the word out for the passage of Amendment 4 before the 2018 election.
“I don’t think that anyone thought that this was really likely — that we would get a 60 percent super majority in Florida to say: No matter what party you’re a part of, I want my fellow community members to vote,” said Legend. “No matter what legislative hurdles have been put up, the fact that we accomplished that from the very beginning means that we can do anything we want to do.”
Looking at the smiles in the crowd, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle said that the moment marked a milestone for people who have committed past crimes, but who want to transition back into becoming full members of society.
“What they want to do is they wanna come home, they wanna be part of the community, they want to walk with dignity, they want to be able to have a say and a voice in our process,” she said.
“You hear about the politics of being able to vote, but you forget that some of it is the redemptive value of somebody knowing that the government recognizes that they’ve paid their debt to society,” added Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez. “This was a big deal.”