Free, but in debt: these former Florida inmates who can no longer vote

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Davion and Maria, two former Florida prisoners, paid their debt to society by serving their sentence. But they have not finished paying their debt to the prison system and are therefore deprived of their most basic right as citizens: the right to vote.

Davion Hampton was sentenced in 2008 to 36 months in prison for trafficking cocaine. But when he got out from behind bars, he had $ 52,000 left to pay, not including interest.

“I’ve been paying for nearly 10 years, and I still owe 46,000,” this 42-year-old African-American told AFP in a park in Sanford, central Florida.

Under a law signed in 2019 by the Republican governor of that state, Ron DeSantis, close to Donald Trump, and validated last month by a federal court, former detainees are forced to settle all their debts to justice – fines, court costs, compensation – to be able to vote.

“I would love to regain my right to vote,” says Davion Hampton. “It would give me a sense of security, make me feel human, a citizen of the United States of America. It’s my right”.

Maria Aurora Estevez, a Cuban American from Miami who owes the state $ 500,000, will also not vote after being released from prison in 2007 after a two-year conviction for fraud.

“This right has been taken away from me,” laments the 64-year-old, blind in one eye.

Every month, 15% of her monthly salary of $ 800 – she works in a fast food restaurant – is taken from her.

Florida has nearly 775,000 former inmates who have served their sentence, a population mostly made up of people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Since this state has traditionally been of paramount importance in US presidential elections – a victory in Florida means 29 voters, and it can be played by a few thousand votes – the new law can have a real impact on the November 3 election.

Mostly, it disproportionately affects Hispanics and African Americans. For some human rights activists, this is a blatant example of restricting the right to vote for minorities, who tend to vote Democrats.

“This is not just an attack on black people or Hispanics, it is a deliberate attack on the democracy we want in this country,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition ( FRRC), an organization that defends the right to vote of “returning citizens”. This group called for a march on October 24, the day early voting began in Florida.

Conversely, Republican lawmakers consider that an ex-convict does not serve his sentence until he has also finished paying his financial debts.

Voice purchase?

After the law was validated by federal justice, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who campaigns for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, helped raise $ 16 million which will be used to pay fines and fees for former inmates.

Celebrities such as singer John Legend, basketball stars LeBron James and Michael Jordan and director Steven Spielberg also donated a total of $ 20 million.

Asked by AFP, the FRRC did not specify how many ex-convicts had managed to pay their debts thanks to these donations.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, has called on the FBI and local police to investigate Michael Bloomberg for “potential violations of election laws.”

Matt Gaetz, an elected congressional staunch supporter of Donald Trump, also denounced vote buying.

Reactions which, for the former inmate Davion Hampton, show “the root of the problem”.

Republicans “think that [les dons] buy Democratic votes, and that if returning citizens can vote, there will be more Democratic votes than Republicans, ”he explains.

“But we have to count, it’s that simple, because we pay taxes like everyone else.”

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