By Nicholas Balbontin
“Past mistakes should not define a person’s future.”
These words, tweeted from the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) in 2019, have become a rallying cry for those Americans attempting to fight for felons’ right to vote in Florida. ” FRRC was founded bv returning citizerns and is “dedicated to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with conviction.”
The Eleventh Circuit’s decision to uphold Fla. Stat. § 98.0751 has been widely covered across blogs, articles, and general media. The court upheld Fla. Stat. § 98.0751(2)(a)(5)(b), stating that even when a returning citizen has completed the imprisonment portion of his sentence, he has not fully completed his sentence until all fines and fees are paid. The decision not only sparked controversy but increased the urgency of voting rights restoration efforts as the upcoming presidential election approaches. In an incredibly lengthy, 6-4 split opinion, the majority cited the lack of a suspect class as the main reason behind its holding of no equal protection violation. Without a suspect class in question to elicit strict scrutiny, the court turned to rational basis review. Through this lens, the State was found to have had a rational interest in ensuring that its convicted felons completed the entirety of their sentence. This presents a barrier to restoration for those returning citizens who face financial hardship and are unable to pay off these fines and fees.
Understandably, returning citizens who have just spent a considerable amount of time imprisoned are not likely to have the funds necessary to pay off these fines and fees. With this decision coming down so close to a presidential election, approximately 800,000 Floridians will be excluded from voting in November. The FRRC decided that where the judicial system fails these citizens, the people of Florida can step in and procure justice. Through their Fines and Fees Program, the FRRC is helping convicted felons complete the entirety of their sentence in the eyes of the Eleventh Circuit. Of note, the FRRC has chosen to exclude felons convicted of murder or sexual assault from the program. Returning citizens are able to apply for a scholarship-type award, payable directly to the court.
While money can be a simple solution to this complex issue, the FRRC recognizes that some cases require more aid than others. In addition to the Fines and Fees Program, they have partnered with the League of Women Voters of Florida to match pro bono lawyers with returning citizens in need. Often, the legal system can be a puzzle specifically designed to be unsolvable for the general population. By providing legal aid to returning citizens, the FRRC lowers the hurdle for close to a million Floridians. Arguably the most important aspect of the FRRC is the “Check Rights Status” tool. Court systems, and websites in particular, can be almost as complex as the law itself. Beginning the restoration process is impossible if the returning citizen is unaware of their status. This tool gives the returning citizen both knowledge and control over their voting status.
The FRRC provides streamlined access to every stage of the voting restoration process. By providing a clear, accessible digital lighthouse of information and education, returning citizens can follow the light to restore rights. The FRRC also dedicates a section of its site to education. Amplifying the voices of returning citizens, the FRRC aims to educate the public on an issue that is all too easy to miss for those who are fortunate enough to not be affected.
Donations to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition can be made here. This blog post is a reflection of my own personal views and opinion and is in no way representative of William and Mary Law School.