JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Marissa Alexander knows politics. No political race—judgeship, state representative, national—nor proposed amendment escapes her notice. That’s why during this midterm election season, she has sat down her 18-year-old twins at the dinner table to go over everything—the amendments and candidates that voters must choose from on Tuesday so that her children will be fully informed before going to the polls.
She’d love to join them next week and maybe help elect Florida’s first black governor. But she can’t. She’s considered a felon. In Florida, for the most part, residents convicted of felonies aren’t allowed to vote. But if enough voters decide to change the law, she will be able to vote again.
Alexander made national headlines in 2010 after she fired a warning shot at her abusive husband—a man who had threatened to kill her—but was denied the “stand your ground” defense because the prosecutor claimed, many critics say wrongly, she could have escaped. She was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. She served more than five years between county jail and prison while fighting the case before an appellate court judge ordered a new trial over a technicality. Though she has been out of prison and free from house arrest for nearly two years, Alexander still cannot vote because Florida’s voting laws permanently strip residents of their right to vote if they are convicted of a felony. Alexander’s had to settle for volunteering with local organizations to get the word out about Amendment 4, which will overturn the law, and uses Instagram to convince people to vote yes for the measure.
“Yes, it is frustrating to an extent,” Alexander said while she watched over her 8-year-old daughter, Rihanna. “But being able to have people’s ear ... is just as valuable as being able to vote because I believe there will be a day when we will be able to vote. If I cannot be part of the civil human right of voting, I can be a part of making a difference in terms of how people view it.”
Many believe Alexander was another black victim of predatory prosecution, robbing her of her freedom and a constitutional right others died for. But her fortunes could change Nov. 6 if 60 percent of Floridians vote “yes” on Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to people convicted of most felonies. Those convicted of murder and sex offender-related charges would be excluded.
As of now, more than 1.5 million people in the state of Florida cannot vote because of felony convictions; 1 in 5 of the disenfranchised are black. No state in the union has a higher rate of such disenfranchisement. The only recourse for those like Alexander is to apply for restoration with the state’s clemency board officials, a process local activists say is unfair and arbitrary. Iowa and Kentucky are the other states that impose lifetime disenfranchisement of voting rights unless a pardon is granted.
Criminal justice advocates have been galvanizing “get out to vote” efforts in black and Latinx communities. Enthusiasm around Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s run for governor is also giving activists hope that people of color will make it to the polls to vote yes on the amendment. So far, polling shows a strong majority of Floridians plan on doing just that.
At Gillum campaign events, there often are as many “Vote Yes On Amendment 4” T-shirts as there are folks wearing Gillum campaign gear. That’s by design, according to Angie Nixon, the organizing director for the Win Justice Campaign, an organization that aims to get infrequent voters to the polls in key swing states. If the amendment passes, it has the potential to reconfigure political power in Florida.
“That can change the way a ton of elections go,” Nixon said. “That’s power, a population of a community that would normally vote for things that affect their community like better access to health care, better quality education, voting for people who would speak to those issues. If they were able to vote, I think they would. A democracy works best when everyone is involved [and] can participate in it.”
In 2007, when now-U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist was Florida governor, he allowed those convicted of felonies to regain their right to vote without clemency hearings. Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for senator, changed those rules in 2011 by imposing five-year waiting periods. Under Scott, voting rights were restored to twice as many whites as blacks.
His restoration process has favored Republicans over Democrats, according to the Palm Beach Post. African Americans accounted for a lower percentage of restorations under Scott than under any of his predecessors—regardless or party—going back at least 50 years. There are more than 10,000 restoration applications on backlog.
If Amendment 4 passes, Scott would not be able to use executive powers to reverse the change because it would become part of the state constitution and bypass the clemency board, said Siottis Jackson, Northern Florida state director for Second Chances Campaign.
“They can say, ‘I’m in a bad mood and I am not gonna approve this person,’” Jackson said of the clemency board. “Another problem is, will they take your case? It’s not fair.”
As for Alexander, she was released from prison in 2013 while waiting for a new trial and eventually took a plea deal to a lesser felony charge more than a year later to preserve her freedom. Alexander can’t apply for clemency until 2022 because she was placed on house arrest for two years after her release and current law dictates that the five-year grace period kicks in after all parts of a sentence are complete. Merely having to think about the cumbersome restoration process after her release was too much to handle. Her priority is taking care of her twins, who have just started college, and her 8-year-old daughter with whom she shares custody with her ex-husband.
During the two years she was on house arrest, Alexander had to deal with weekly visits from probation officers and wrote a weekly log of exactly where she was going to be, minute-by-minute. If she wasn’t within the area designated in the log she submitted to her probation officer, her ankle bracelet would go off. During her birthday party in 2016 in a crowded restaurant, it went off. The beeps could be heard throughout the establishment. The conviction has hampered her life in other ways as well. When she applies for jobs, she often doesn’t get a call back after having to check “yes” to the question about whether an applicant has ever been convicted of a felony.
All of these stressors can wear you down, Alexander said. Some people simply give up and don’t think about the electoral process because the criminal justice system wears down their bandwidth to care.
The stress of having to wait for a new trial—coupled with the potential 60 years in prison she was facing if convicted—weighed on her so much that thoughts of suicide raced through her mind.
“If people are being honest, you feel at the end of your rope about it,” she said as her daughter slept on the couch nearby. “You’re doing the best you can, and you say to yourself, ‘You know what? It would be much easier to sleep than to live through this.’ Ultimately, taking my own life wasn’t something that I would do, but it feels that way.”
Alexander is fortunate. Before she was locked up, she was earning a six-figure salary (she spent all of her savings on lawyers fighting her case) and had just earned an MBA. Her family supports her. The national attention her story generated earned her many supporters nationally. It allows her to use her social media platform and travel the nation discussing social justice issues concerning domestic abuse and justice issues such as Amendment 4.
She is happy Florida is getting national attention because of its elections. It might force the state to act on its shameful criminal justice problems, such as “stand your ground” and voter disenfranchisement.
“We’ve made my case, we’ve had Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and recently, Markeis McGlockton,” Alexander said. “People see this and think, not only are there injustices there, ‘These people don’t allow people convicted of felonies to vote. Where are we? In the 1920s there in Florida? Y’all need to get up to speed.’”