Amendment 4 Restored The Right To Vote To Felons But...

Via Instagram: Latriceroyale

Latrice Royale, a beloved competitor from “RuPaul’s Drag Race“ implored her Instagram fans to votethree days before the midterm elections. 

In a post, Royale wrote, “I made a mistake! I paid for my crime! I pay my taxes! … I don’t have my right to vote! I urge all that have a voice, please vote! Speak for people like me who can’t!”

Like 1.6 million people living in Florida, Royale (birth name Timothy Wilcots) had lost his right to vote because he’d once been convicted of a felony. He violated his probation on a 2002 drug arrest in Fort Lauderdale. He’d been carrying cannabis and Klonopin without a prescription — a felony — and served about a year in prison. 

After being released, Wilcots discovered he could no longer participate in elections thanks to a 1868 state constitutional amendment specifically designed to reduce the number of black voters. The amendment disproportionately affected black Floridians as they make up 46 percent of the state’s prison populationdespite being only 16 percent of the general population.

However, on Nov. 6, nearly 65 percent of Floridian voters approved Amendment 4, a ballot measure restoring voting rights to felons who completed their sentences (and weren’t convicted of murder and sex offenses).

Amendment 4 seemed posed to benefit the estimated 5 percent of male prisoners and 33 percent of female prisoners who identify as LGBT, and to majorly overhaul the state’s old way of restoring convicts’ voting rights, a process that could take anywhere from 15 to 38 years with no guarantee of approval.

“Of course the passage of Amendment 4 is a subject that is near and dear to my heart,” Wilcots told SFGN. “For over a decade, I have been stripped of my right to vote. I was always under the assumption that once you pay for your crime and do your time, you can regain your life, rebuild and become a productive member of society. As it turns out ... not so much.”

But unbeknownst to Wilcots and many supporters of Amendment 4, the newly passed law won’t immediately restore the voting rights of most felons. In fact, poorer felons won’t ever get their rights back.

In a Dec. 8 Florida Sentineleditorial, Scott Greenberg — the executive director of the Freedom Fund, a non-profit fighting the mass jailing of LGBTQ people — pointed out that ex-felons only have their voting rights restored after they pay court fees associated to their arrest, an amount that can range anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.

This basically amounted to a debt trap and a poll tax, Greenberg wrote, especially considering that the average annual income of a formerly incarcerated Americans is $6,500. That poverty, combined with the fact that Florida also suspends drivers licenses for nonpayment of court debt, ensures that only wealthier ex-convicts will ever regain their voting rights.

It’s unclear how many of Florida’s former felons owe court fees, but when Freedom Fund looked at 100 South Florida court records from 1998, they found that 92 still owed fees.

“Votes shouldn't be held hostage to payment,” Greenberg wrote.

When asked by SFGN, Greenberg said he disagrees with an oft-stated online sentiment that those who violate laws shouldn’t have a hand in shaping them. 

These comments ignore the law’s racist roots, he said, and maintain an outsized consequence for common felony offenses like drug possession, public fighting, stealing over $300 or sleeping in public, a felony charge that especially affects the 960,000 homeless LGBT youthcurrently living on the streets.

“I don’t understand how [breaking these laws] should preclude you from the civic fabric or ever having a say in government,” Greenberg said

“If someone infringes upon the laws and the idea is to bring them back into the fold in a more ‘pro-social’ way, why would you want to exclude them from exercising a fundamental right that makes people participate in how things work and have a stake in how government gets done?” 

Because felons are regularly excluded from employment opportunities and public benefits, Greenberg said the current legal consequences for felons as punitive enough without adding extra penalties. 

Research also shows that Florida felons who have their voting rights restored are much less likely to commit another crime.

In fact, he said that LGBT people should take a particular interest in this issue since they’re three times more likely to be incarcerated than the general public.

Trinity “The Tuck” Taylor, another Florida resident who appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race, agrees with Greenberg. 

Taylor said, “If someone did something wrong and they do their time then they should be given a second chance. Obviously, not all crimes to me are forgivable but the majority of people are good people and humans don’t always make the best decisions.”

“I do not understand the [court] fees being added [as a condition to restore voting.] If they have paid their time then it should be free like all of us!”

But the implementation of Amendment 4 faces other roadblocks apart from lingering court fees. Election supervisors in the state’s 67 counties for restoring former felons’ voting rights.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said the legislature will have to pass “implementation language”before Amendment 4 can go into effect, but the new legislative term doesn’t start until March 5 and others worry that legislators will prolong the process or make it harder than necessary.

Some felons may not realize that they need to finish their probationary sentences or pay court fees before re-applying to vote. As such, if they check the box on the voter registration forms which said, "I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored,” they could be found guilty of another felony.

In short, it seems like it’ll be a while before Amendment 4 will benefit anyone, let alone Florida’s LGBT former felons like Wilcots. 

Nevertheless, he said that he’ll continue encouraging his fans to push for reform.

“Because I couldn’t vote,” Wilcot said, “it has been my mission to influence and inspire those who could to use their voice. I have not, nor will I ever, waver from my mission to make change happen.”