THE REMNANTS of Hurricane Patricia were sweeping over Orlando, Florida, and Eddie Walker was soaked. It was a Wednesday morning in late October, and Walker, the pastor of In God’s Time Tabernacle, located in the downtown neighborhood of Parramore, had spent part of his morning repairing a jammed window in the white 2001 Chevrolet van that he uses to transport food donations from grocery stores and fast food restaurants across the city to his parishioners, many of whom are homeless or recovering drug addicts.
When I found Walker behind his church, he beckoned me out of the rain and into the van’s cab. Walker is barrel-chested and of medium height, and his voice carries with a pastor’s booming resonance, even when he speaks quietly. I’d come to hear Walker’s life story, but from the start his cellphone continuously interrupted our conversation. Volunteers were calling to troubleshoot logistics. “Anything that you can get and you don’t have to pay for,” Walker pleaded into his phone, “order as much as you can, ’cause we can use all of it.”
After five minutes, he signaled me to climb in the van’s back cargo area, where I sat on a large plastic toolbox amid stacked banana crates and empty canvas totes marked “food relief transportation bag.” A woman named Rhonda took shotgun. She needed to get to a local health clinic that provides discounted care to the neighborhood’s residents, and was relying on Walker for a ride.
“This was supposed to be my day off,” Walker told me after dropping Rhonda at the low-slung clinic situated inside a strip mall. “But I don’t really know what that means anymore.”
Walker hasn’t always been on the straight and narrow. In the mid 1990s, after returning home from a decade’s service abroad as a military police officer, he fell in with a cocaine-trafficking operation in Orlando. Small deals led to larger ones, and in 1995 Walker agreed to trade nearly three ounces of cocaine for a Honda Accord. That deal was his last: The owner of the car was a confidential informant, whose testimony put Walker in prison for the rest of the decade.
Since his release in 2001, Walker has dedicated himself primarily to feeding the hungry, has worked a number of jobs, and now subsists largely off Social Security and his military pension. Yet the state of Florida continues to punish him for the drug charges he was convicted of 20 years ago. For as long as Walker continues to live in Florida, he will be denied the right to vote.
In this respect, Walker has plenty of company. No other state has a larger number of disenfranchised citizens than Florida, where more than 1.5 million people have lost the right to cast a ballot on Election Day, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit prison reform group.
Among Florida’s black population, the rate of disenfranchisement is high, with nearly a quarter of African-Americans prohibited from voting.
Nationwide, nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to felony convictions. Although most states restrict the voting rights of imprisoned felons, Iowa currently is the only one that joins Florida in imposing a lifelong disenfranchisement on ex-felons. Until three weeks ago, Kentucky also had such a ban, but on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving the state’s outgoing Democratic governor issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of 140,000 nonviolent ex-felons in the state. The incoming Republican governor has signaled that he may uphold the order.
More than 50 years after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Florida is still a place where in a typical public setting — a grocery store or a city block — a sizable portion of the citizens you walk among are likely to be quietly enduring the state’s lifelong disenfranchisement. In neighborhoods like heavily black Parramore, an even larger number of residents will be unable to vote. And Walker says that in his congregation, those who can vote are outnumbered by those who cannot.
“We’ve had older clients call us and say I want to be able to vote again before I die,” said Mathew Higbee, the founding partner of Higbee & Associates, a law firm that helps ex-felons restore their civil rights. “And we say, ‘Right now it’s going to be a six- to 10-year wait before they’ll even look at it,’ and the person says: ‘I’m not sure I’m going to live that long so I’m not even going to try.’”
The Scott administration has asserted that the governor uses the right to vote as an incentive to encourage former offenders to stay out of trouble. “Gov. Scott feels that convicted felons need to have an opportunity to show they can be law-abiding members of society before those rights are restored,” a spokesperson said during the 2012 election season. Yet ex-felons who have stayed clear of the law for more than a decade told me that their petitions to Florida’s clemency board have gone unanswered or have become stalled in a bewildering bureaucracy plagued with a backlog of nearly 11,000 pending applications for civil rights restoration. So far this year, the state has approved only 315 applications. The former felons I spoke with hold little faith in the clemency process. And, perhaps more than anything else, they express a feeling of having been being forgotten by virtually every element of political life in America. (Gov. Scott’s office did not respond to a list of emailed questions.)
“Honestly it feels like there is not a single person who cares if I get the right to vote,” said Sam Nimmo, a 38-year-old handyman who has filed three unsuccessful applications to the state’s clemency board. Nimmo was arrested for burglary and marijuana possession when he was 17, and, like several people I interviewed, has never been allowed to cast a ballot. “I feel like half a citizen.”
AS WITH NUMEROUS similar laws across the United States, Florida’s felon voting ban coincided with the end of the Civil War and the consequent passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted equal protection under the law and extended voting rights to nonwhites. Facing the threat of a shifting balance of power, states quickly enacted restrictive election laws, including prohibitions on ex-felons voting that had a disproportionate impact on minorities.
Although the new constitutional protections forced lawmakers to present race-neutral justifications for the new voting laws, explicit racism inevitably seeped into the record during the frenzied drafting of the felony provisions. “The crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify 60 percent of the Negroes,” said John Field Bunting, a participant in Alabama’s 1901 constitutional convention, in reference to the felon disenfranchisement ordinance he had introduced. And, even a full century after Bunting’s remarks, proponents of felon disenfranchisement have still let invidious racial language slip while discussing the laws. “If it’s blacks losing the right to vote, then they have to quit committing crimes,” said a South Carolina state representative during a 2001 debate about changing the state’s disenfranchisement law.
While the more iconic Reconstruction-era voter suppression mechanisms — tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests — have been felled by courts and Congress over the past hundred years, the felon voting provisions have remained a stubborn vestige of the century-and-a-half-old push to block certain groups from the ballot box. In Florida’s black communities, the effects of that state’s law have become simply a part of the landscape.
Every time Ivey pays taxes to the state and federal government he’s reminded bitterly of his exclusion from the political process. “I’m like, wow, I still have no say with any elected officials,” Ivey told me. “They don’t have an ear for my conversation because I’m not someone who affects their job, I’m not valid, I’m not able to vote.”
Ivey’s used car lot, Ivey League Auto Sales, sits along a suburban commercial strip in a squat, one-story building with heavily tinted storefront windows that are lined with bright “BUY HERE” banners. The lot can easily be missed among the cluttered commerce of Jacksonville’s exurban sprawl. Inside, Ivey’s office displays a prim sense of order, the hushed-voice bustle of any efficient white-collar setting.
Like all the employed ex-felons I interviewed, Ivey is acutely aware of the delicate mantle of luck and circumstance that separates him from those ex-offenders who arrive hungry at Walker’s church. Last year, Ivey’s business nearly went under after a series of missteps, including the purchase, for $2,000, of a Hyundai sedan that he later discovered had a spent transmission. “You can lose hope really quick out here,” Ivey told me. “A couple disappointments, a couple failures, and you can end up on the street corner real fast.”
According to Gov. Scott’s new policy, Ivey must wait until at least 2019 before he can even apply for clemency. However far fetched it may seem, Ivey believes that one of his best chances of ever casting a vote lies in the prospect of someday changing the state’s felon voting law. Despite his often daylong, overlapping work and family obligations, Ivey frequently seeks updates on the disenfranchisement law from his friend Devin Coleman, a voting rights activist in Jacksonville. In turn, Coleman has pleaded with Ivey to become involved with his effort to end the prohibition. “But I’m caught up in this 24 hours a day, seven days a week — I’ve got a family to feed,” Ivey said. “We’ve had our verbal jousts because he says, ‘I don’t want to be the face of this all by myself.’”
People like Coleman are virtually alone in their fight. Florida is home to America’s largest disenfranchised population, yet not a single national or statewide organization is working to address the problem. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there has been an increased interest in state laws around the country that make it harder for people to vote. Yet apart from occasional reports in the press, the million-plus Floridians blocked from the franchise have been effectively forgotten. “It’s like pushing a wagon up a hill,” said Ivey, “and you’ve only got one or two guys pushing it.”
AT AN ORLANDO IHOP, I sat down for some late afternoon breakfast with an ex-felon named Desmond Meade, who has become the figurehead for what exists of the voting rights movement in Florida. To many I spoke with, Meade is the state’s movement: Almost every political organization I contacted about disenfranchisement in the state simply referred me to Meade, who runs the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a nonprofit group with no operating budget and not a single employee. Meade works a day job and tends to the FRRC only in his spare time, which he also must divide among his five children. “It affects my health,” Meade told me of the stresses of trying to keep the organization alive. “It affects my personal life and my family. There are times when I just want to give up.”
Meade said that ever since funding from the American Civil Liberties Union dried up a few years ago, the FRRC has run on fumes. “Foundations have to pick an area, you know, whatever’s attractive at the time,” Meade said. “We’ve been weakened a lot.”
Many of Meade’s volunteers are former inmates themselves, people who rarely can expend the necessary resources of time, energy, and money. “Even though voting seems so essential to you and me,” Meade said, “it’s the last thing people are thinking when they’re released from prison — they’re thinking, ‘Can I get a job? Where can I stay?’ So we know there are immediate needs that need to be met before we can meaningfully engage returning citizens.”
From IHOP, I drove downtown to a progressive community center named Speak Up Florida, where an ex-felon named LaShanna Tyson had assembled roughly a dozen of her fellow disenfranchised Floridians to strategize how they could receive political recognition. Released from prison in 2011 for driving the getaway car in a deadly gas station robbery, Tyson, 45, is now taking a two-year legal studies course at a college in nearby Sanford and has been outspoken in the local media about voting issues. At Speak Up, Tyson sought to gather support for her idea that former felons — with their pent-up frustration and compelling stories of political banishment — are uniquely positioned to increase turnout among those in their communities who still can vote. She thinks this is the best way to drag the issue of disenfranchisement out of the political shadows.
“I’ve watched every other group set up and have their movement,” Tyson told the participants, who sat on folding chairs and couches that line the small room. “If we do this and do it right we can become effective.”
But after 40 minutes the meeting turned briefly chaotic and abruptly ended when a ponytailed older white man began continually interrupting Tyson to criticize her plan for working within the confines of establishment politics rather than his preferred route of forming a revolutionary party.
By removing an important lever of influence from a group already deeply lacking in resources, felon disenfranchisement rules have a way of naturally insulating themselves from meaningful challenge. This dynamic appears on display in the challenging odds faced by Tyson’s proposal and Meade’s latest petition drive.
Some ex-felons I spoke with expressed astonishment that I was even asking them about voting; they faced so many other pressing problems. Some I interviewed had not only found it impossible to find stable work with the criminal mark on their record but also struggled with what most Americans take for granted — such as simply being approved to rent an apartment. Two ex-felons said they were living with family members and expressed fear of being discovered and evicted by their landlords. When I met Miguel Adams — who has multiple drug-related felonies on his record — he had been sleeping on a couch at the Speak Up center, not because he couldn’t afford an apartment, but because with those marks on his record he could not get approved for housing.
“In New York, they wanted to run a credit check,” Adams said. “Here, all they want is a criminal background check. I have the money to rent but no one will allow me.”
WHEN SAM NIMMO ARRIVED at the local Wendy’s in Crestview, a town on the western edge of Florida’s panhandle, he and his two children in tow were all decked out in soccer shorts, clay-smattered jerseys, and grassy cleats. Clean-shaven and sporting a crew cut, Nimmo had the unmistakable appearance of an off-duty soldier, even in his coaching outfit.
While Florida’s disenfranchisement laws have an outsized affect on minorities in the state, a large share of those who have lost their rights are white. Nimmo, who identifies as a Republican, falls outside the usual narrative of voter suppression and is one of hundreds of thousands of whites that the state has prohibited from voting.
In 1995, when Nimmo was 17 and in his junior year of high school, he and several friends walked out of a particularly rowdy house party with a number of stolen valuables. “It wasn’t like were kicking people’s doors in or anything,” Nimmo told me of his teenage theft charge. In the middle of the party, his classmate’s parents returned home. The teenagers scattered, driving away with some of the host’s stuff, including a T-shirt and some jewelry. When Nimmo was pulled over by an investigator weeks later, the cop found marijuana in the car. He was charged with grand theft, burglary, and possession with intent to sell — all felonies. Nimmo was charged as an adult and quickly pleaded guilty to the three crimes. He understood that a felony conviction was serious but wouldn’t have guessed at the profound ways in which his guilty pleas would alter the course of his life.
Growing up in the Florida panhandle, Nimmo saw military service as his only possible career path. And this lack of choice posed no constraint: His family had served in the military for generations, and becoming a soldier was all Nimmo had ever wanted in life. Yet the military generally avoids recruiting ex-felons. Throughout his 20s, Nimmo built a dossier of recommendations and highlights of his post-prison achievements to present to the Army. But he never heard back. In the years since being released from prison, Nimmo has carved out a comfortable life as a civilian, first working at a car dealership in nearby Fort Walton, and more recently as a freelance handyman. As he settled into family life, his career disappointment waned while the bitterness of his disenfranchisement intensified.
In contrast to Walker and Ivey, for Nimmo the inability to vote breeds a sense of shame and social isolation. “My kids would come home from school and start talking about George Washington and they would do things like mock voting at school, and they would say, ‘I voted for Barack Obama. Who did you vote for, Dad?’” Nimmo told me. “I would look at them and say, ‘You know, I just haven’t decided yet.’ I would make up excuses, something like, ‘I need to pay more attention to politics and I need do a little more research.’ I was too embarrassed to tell them that I can’t vote.”
Nimmo’s first application for full restoration of his rights, in 2005, was rejected two years later; Florida’s clemency board told him that he owed an unspecified sum of money related to his conviction to Santa Rosa County, where he had been arrested. But when he contacted the county, they knew nothing of the debt. Even so, the state continued to insist that he owed money for his crime. In 2011, Nimmo recruited an archivist in Santa Rosa County to pull his case file, which had been placed on microfilm, from the county archives and discovered that he owed nearly $3,000 in restitution and fees, debts the county does not actively collect. The county clerk told him that, as far as she was concerned, he didn’t have to pay it. But seeing this as his only chance to regain his civil rights, Nimmo paid the sum on the spot and immediately notified the state.
If he ever wins a clemency board hearing, Nimmo will travel two hours to Tallahassee to be publicly questioned by Florida’s governor, the state’s attorney general, and two other cabinet officials. Several ex-felons I spoke with were well aware of the granular level of detail pursued by officials in examining the lives of petitioners, including matters a non-felon would virtually never have to answer for before a state’s governor: things like patterns of alcohol consumption, speeding tickets, and feelings of remorse for past transgressions.
As a result, Nimmo feels anxiety over past infractions that many would have long since put behind them. For example, he still worries that, in examining his eligibility for voting rights, the state might seize upon two misdemeanor offenses — shoplifting and a bad check — that he committed shortly after his release from prison.
“I was in prison at 18 years old, you know I didn’t know how to write a check, how to balance a checkbook, how to maintain money, because I was incarcerated,” Nimmo told me. “When I got out and I was on my own, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have those life skills.” Nimmo says it has been at least a decade since he’s been charged with even a misdemeanor. “It feels like the only thing in life I haven’t solidified, the only thing I don’t have closure on,” Nimmo told me. “I feel incomplete.” Four years later, he’s still waiting.