“Free Our Vote: Using Data Activism and Crowdsourcing to Restore Voting Rights for Former Felons in Florida”

The following is a guest post from Neel U. Sukhatme, Associate Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, and Co-Founder, Free Our Vote:

As readers of this blog might know, nearly 65% of voters in Florida supported a ballot initiative in 2018 to restore voting rights for most former felons in the state. Unfortunately, the state legislature and governor subsequently enacted SB 7066, which removed voting rights for hundreds of thousands of former felons who still owe fines, fees, court costs or restitution associated with their sentencing. Subsequent legal challenges to SB 7066 ultimately failed.

There are many legal and ethical problems stemming from this suppression of voting rights. But a more basic problem is pragmatic: most former felons cannot even find out how much they owe in fines/fees because Florida does not maintain a centralized database that tracks this information.

My colleague, Alexander Billy, and I were troubled by this. So we founded Free Our Vote, a non-partisan, non-profit organization comprised of data scientists, economists, and legal researchers that seeks to restore voting rights for former felons. Leveraging our past experience with Florida data, Free Our Vote has collected accurate fines/fees information for over 425,000 Floridians across 24 counties that comprise over 85% of the state’s population.

The data we’ve gathered has enabled us to launch a multi-media information campaign with our partners, the Campaign Legal Center and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Together, we have informed tens of thousands of former felons who owe nothing that they should be able to participate in the November election. Free Our Vote’s data-centered approach has also helped us support the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in strategically allocating repayment of fines/fees to maximize the number of people whose voting rights are restored.

Separately, Free Our Vote is partnering with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a 501(c)(3) tax-deductible organization, to pay off fines/fees for Floridians with felony records. Though the support of generous donors, we will have repaid more than $50,000 in fines/fees across multiple counties, enabling Free Our Vote to restore voting rights for well over 1,000 former felons. Free Our Vote’s efforts on this front will continue up through Election Day.

Sadly, the shadow of fines/fees will continue to impact thousands more past November 3, limiting their ability to obtain a driver’s license, let alone cast a ballot. Free Our Vote will continue to work on this issue, leveraging the rich data we’ve collected and working with partners such as the Fines and Fees Justice Center to inform policymakers and redress these shortcomings in the criminal justice system.

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