By Hannah O. Brown and Becca Burton
Contributed Editing from Anna Hamilton
Published May 11, 2020
Leading up to the 2018 election, Tequila McKnight knocked on strangers’ doors to collect their signatures in support of the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, also known as Amendment 4.
Sometimes she had to listen to all the reasons why they believed felons threw that right away. She couldn’t blame them. It wasn’t like she had the words “ex-felon” stamped on her forehead.
The air conditioner in McKnight’s car was shot, offering no relief as she traveled to the next neighborhood.
“When you come out of prison, it's like no one is willing to give you another chance,” McKnight said. “That's what I experienced coming back into Gainesville.”
Tequila McKnight helped solicit signatures to get Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot.
McKnight was part of a large grassroots movement organized by former felons to campaign for Amendment 4. Voters ultimately passed the bipartisan measure by a majority in 2018. Since then, mounting legal battles and extensive barriers to reentry have stifled the measure’s intended impact: to re-enfranchise over 10% of Florida’s voting-age population.
Onced released from prison, a criminal record follows ex-felons forever like a ghost. The simple question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” asked on every job application haunts them.
In fact, finding a job is the number one barrier to reentry after incarceration. A year after release, between 60 and 75% of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed, according to the National Employment Law Project. A criminal record also puts up substantial roadblocks to finding housing, receiving public assistance and paying off debt.
McKnight knows the struggle. After her release, she took a job at a Gainesville hotel, cleaning rooms for $3.81 a pop.
“To get out and have to go down that low. This seems inhumane,” McKnight remembered thinking at the time. “Not even $5 to clean a room.”
In prison, McKnight had it all figured out. She was going to start a business and wrote up a plan. She often read it when she felt like quitting.
After working as a maid for a year, McKnight was promoted to manager.
One day McKnight ran into Jhody Polk at a training for hotel managers in Gainesville. The two women grew up together, served time together and were released about a month apart. At the time, Polk was the executive director for the Florida Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
Polk told McKnight about the Say Yes to Second Chances initiative to get Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot.
“She felt like I would be a good person to get involved with it because of the situation of me being an ex-felon as well and the barriers that I was facing coming out of prison and not having a right to vote,” said McKnight, who has since left the hotel industry and now is the chief operating officer and owner of TNT Dynamite Cleaning Service.
Voting As A Strategy
For Polk, working on voting rights restoration was a means to an end.
Inspired from her time working as a certified law clerk in prison, what Polk really had her heart set on was becoming a lawyer. In 2015, Polk enrolled in the College of Central Florida to earn her associates degree in paralegal studies. She figured she would work hard and eventually earn her rights back. She was willing to put in the time.
But the law was not on her side. Prior to the passing of Amendment 4, convicted felons in Florida effectively lost their right to vote for life, as it could only be reinstated by the Governor. By 2016, this number translated to 1 in 5 black people in the state.
Polk did her research. Had any other convicted felons successfully completed law school?
Her search brought her to Desmond Meade, who earned his law degree from Florida International University. Even though Meade had gone to law school, he wasn’t allowed to practice. Instead he dedicated his career to restoring the rights he had lost. He went on to become the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, leading Say Yes to Second Chances. In 2019, Meade was recognized as one of Time Magazine’s most influential people alongside Michelle Obama, Greta Thunberg and Pope Francis.
"It took some time to realize I wasn’t just asking for myself. I was asking for so many individuals."
Polk attended one of the FRRC working meetings. In Gainesville, she began volunteering with the local Say Yes to Second Chances group, and shortly after was offered a paid position as the Central Florida organizer for the initiative, which brought her to areas outside of Alachua County.
Polk would often bring her brother, Julius Irving, who is also a convicted felon along to collect signatures. They needed to get as many as possible to hit the one million goal.
And, because only registered voters could sign the petition, Polk and Irving knew they might not have much luck in their own neighborhoods. But they went there anyway. They wanted their community members to see voting as a strategy, whether they were registered or not.
Polk and Irving understood. Before they began working on the campaign, heading to the polls wasn’t a priority.
“Those people don't have a relationship with the government. Most of us don't even know anything like the roles, the connection, the responsibility. It hurts me, especially right now,” Polk said. “Before, I did not see voting as a strategy. Now I totally look at voting as a strategy.”
On the campaign trail, Polk learned quickly that the impacts from incarceration spread far and wide.
Tequila McKnight and Latashia Brimm are two of five fellows for Community Spring, a Gainesville-based grassroots organization that employs people who have experienced poverty to develop programs that help dismantle structural poverty in their community.
“It took some time to realize I wasn’t just asking for myself. I was asking for so many individuals,” Polk said.
“No amount of voting could have inspired the citizenship that the people did for me during my time working on the campaign.”
The Road to Restitution
Nationwide, more than 6 million Americans were unable to vote in 2016 because of felony convictions.
Before Amendment 4, Florida had the highest percentage of disenfranchised individuals with felony convictions of any state in the U.S. Over 10% of Florida’s population couldn’t vote because of felony convictions. More than 21% of African Americans in the state fell into this category, according to The Sentencing Project.
And 75% of Floridians with felony convictions were never sentenced to time in prison, according to the FRRC.
“They haven't done something that deserves that, yet we are going to strip their right to vote forever?” asked Neil Volz, Deputy Director of the FRRC.
In November 2018, Amendment 4 passed with the support of more than 64% of voters.
The amendment was intended to restore the voting rights of felons who had completed all terms of their sentences. Felons convicted for murder or sex crimes would be excluded from the measure, and all returning citizens would have to have their right to vote granted by the state clemency board.
"I was scared, like okay, they're gonna do something to keep this from happening.”
This 2018 win came after a long road of canvassing, spearheaded by the FRRC. Volz said the project has been in motion since 2011 when former Florida Governor Rick Scott changed clemency policies, making it much more difficult for felons to regain their right to vote.
FRRC canvassed across party lines to collect more than 800,000 signatures to bring Amendment 4 to the ballot in 2018. Volz said the group saw support in many different communities across the state, from Spanish-speaking areas in South Miami to African American communities in Duval County to members of Bikers for Trump.
“The challenge of dealing with the stigma of a felony conviction or the fines and fees that you owe, the debt that you get saddled with, going through that process, all those kinds of things transcend the kind of red and blue stuff,” Volz said.
The language from Amendment 4 was incorporated into Florida’s constitution on January 8, 2019.
“That was a day for us as returning citizens,” said Volz, who was convicted of a felony over a decade ago. “That was like our birthday times 10, right? Fourth of July and our birthday all wrapped up into one.”
When the amendment first passed, Alachua County resident Latashia Brimm was hesitant to believe that she would regain her right to vote.
“I felt it was kind of surreal,” Brimm said, “and I was scared, like okay, they're gonna do something to keep this from happening.”
Brimm was right. In February 2019, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee pushed forward Senate Bill 7066, which required returning citizens to pay all court-ordered fees and fines before they could re-register to vote. The bill also further defined the types of murder and sexual offenses that would lead to being excluded from the measure.
In June 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law.
“Amendment 4 restores—without regard to the wishes of the victims—voting rights to violent felons, including felons convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery and kidnapping, so long as those felons completed all terms of their sentences,” DeSantis wrote in statement. “I think this was a mistake and would not want to compound that mistake by bestowing blanket benefits on violent offenders.”
Soon after, several civil rights groups, including Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed lawsuits to challenge the measure.
“It’s no secret that we believe that this bill was designed to undermine the effectiveness and reach of Amendment 4,” said Nancy Abudu, Deputy Legal Director of Voting Rights for SPLC. “It was motivated by an anti-poor people, anti-communities of color view or position, and the legislature was fully aware of the consequences and motivated by those consequences of seeing this bill to passage.”
In a limited ruling in October 2019, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the bill, blocking the language that requires felons to pay all fines and fees if they are “genuinely unable to pay.” Felons who are able to pay their legal debts can still be denied their right to vote by the state.
Though the ruling applies specifically to the 17 plaintiffs in the suit, the judge questioned the constitutionality of the law in his statement, pointing to the possibility of SB 7066 being overturned in a future ruling. A final decision is yet to be made on the trial.