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As singer John Legend watched, ex-felons in Miami get their rights to vote restored

Jackson Brook and David Ovalle, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- Carmen Brown can vote again.

The 64-year-old Miami woman, with four felonies on her record from decades ago, was the first person called up in a special court hearing Friday aimed at waiving court fees and restoring her right to vote under Florida's Amendment 4.

As a crowded courtroom erupted into applause, Brown hugged Miami-Dade's top prosecutor and public defender. Then, she embraced a special guest, singer John Legend, a high-profile advocate of criminal justice reform who showed up Friday to support the restoration of voting rights.

Thank you so much," Brown said, crying.

Brown was one of more than 20 former felons who appeared at a special hearing Friday created to expedite the restoration of voting rights.

The docket, created in response to a new law overseeing the restoration of voting rights in Florida, was established as a fast-track method by which Miami-Dade judges can set aside some financial penalties that would otherwise prohibit an ex-felon from participating in elections.

"I wanted to be here today because it's a celebration," Legend told reporters. "It's so beautiful to see real people affected by this law change. They're here crying, they're so happy to vote."

Around 150,000 former felons in Miami-Dade County are eligible. "I never gave up hope that this day would come to pass," Brown said.

Friday's court hearing was attended by a host of Miami-Dade leaders who helped establish the program, including State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Public Defender Carlos Martinez. The presiding judge: Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, who was instrumental in pushing for the program.

"This is a good day," Sayfie told the courtroom. "It's a day we celebrate democracy."

 

Last November, a statewide referendum passed Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to more than 1.2 million Floridians with felony records. But Florida's Legislature, led by GOP lawmakers, passed a law in March that required ex-felons to pay off any outstanding court-related debt before they could be eligible to vote. Critics likened it to a racist "poll tax," reminiscent of Jim Crow-era voter suppression.

"We looked at this as a celebration of creating a more inclusive democracy," said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which pushed the successful constitutional amendment in November to restore voting rights to former felons in Florida.

Former felons will still be on the hook for the court costs, but fines will no longer prevent them from registering to vote. A controversial law passed earlier this year had blocked former felons who still had outstanding court fines and fees, even if they were unable to pay.

The amendment overturned a 150-year-old law that had prevented felons from voting, designed to restrict black people from voting. Florida had been one of only four states that restricted convicted felons from voting. By 2016, 1 in 5 black Floridians were barred from voting because they had a felony on their record.

Some ex-felons had already registered to vote after Amendment 4's passage, only to be notified that their eligibility had been rescinded after the Legislature's new bill took effect.

More than a dozen ex-felons have since sued the state, many represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.

(c)2019 Miami Herald

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