When It Costs $53,000 to Vote
Mr. Winter is a staff photographer on assignment in Opinion. Mr. Wegman is a member of the editorial board.
‘Earlier this year we asked Floridians whose voting rights had been denied because of a criminal conviction to sit for photographs, wearing a name tag that lists not their name but their outstanding debt — to the extent they can determine it. This number, which many people attempt to tackle in installments as low as $30 a month, represents how much it costs them to win back a fundamental constitutional right, and how little it costs the state to withhold that right and silence the voices of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. The number also echoes the inmate identification number that they were required to wear while behind bars — another mark of the loss of rights and freedoms that are not restored upon release.
This is the way it’s been in Florida for a century and a half, ever since the state’s Constitution was amended shortly after the Civil War to bar those convicted of a felony from voting. That ban, like similar ones in many other states, was the work of white politicians intent on keeping ballots, and thus political power, out of the hands of millions of Black people who had just been freed from slavery and made full citizens.
Even as other states began reversing their own bans in recent years, Florida remained a holdout — until 2018, when Floridians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to nearly everyone with a criminal record, upon the completion of their sentence. (Those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense were excluded.)
Democratic and Republican voters alike approved the measure, which passed with nearly two-thirds support. Immediately, as many as 1.4 million people in the state became eligible to vote. It was the biggest expansion of voting rights in decades, anywhere in the country.
That should have been the end of it. But within a year, Florida’s Republican-led Legislature gutted the reform by passing a law defining a criminal sentence as complete only after the person sentenced has paid all legal financial obligations connected to it.
Even relatively small debts can be permanently disenfranchising for people who simply don’t bring in enough money to pay them off. General Peterson, 63, served a total of three and a half years on three convictions and believes he still owes around $1,100 in fees. He is retired and using his Social Security check to make monthly payments of $30 on the debt. “You want to help me pay it? That’d be fine with me,” he said.’
The vacuum created by the collapse of independent local news in America has given rise to ghost papers, partisan hackery, unverified rumors, and worse. Yet, new cohorts of news organizations are taking root to fill that void, often supported by philanthropy, public contributions, and new creative means of sustainability. At stake is the information that all citizens need to participate in democracy. S. Mitra Kalita, co-founder and CEO of URL Media, a network of Black-and Brown-owned media organizations sharing content, distribution, and revenues, and Stewart Vanderwilt, president and CEO of Colorado Public Radio, discuss the changing landscape of news gathering with Vivian Schiller, executive director of Aspen Digital at the Aspen Institute.