A polling station in west Miami, Florida, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Despite the heat and threat of thunderstorms, about 500 African-Americans are gathered in Rowlett Park for an end-of-summer day of barbecuing, dancing and playing cards. It’s the fifth annual Old School Picnic, a community park jam that brings together two black neighborhoods that were torn apart when the College Hill and Ponce de Leon public housing projects were razed in 2000. Earlier that morning, President Barack Obama held a massive campaign rally in nearby St. Petersburg, trying to turn out every last vote in this key swing state. The week before, Republicans had made their big bid for Florida at their national convention.
But before the folks gathered in Rowlett Park decide who to vote for, they’ll have to tackle what should be a much simpler question: Are they even eligible to vote?
Trying to answer that question is what brought Yvette Lewis, the political action chair of the Hillsborough County NAACP, to the picnic. The folks in Rowlett Park come from multiple generations of working-class Tampa families, and Lewis seems to be on a first-name basis with most of them. She threads herself through the clusters of tents, stopping every so often to catch up with a friend or family member, but more often to ask people if they’re registered to vote. “Do you know your status?” she inquires, meaning primarily whether they are eligible to vote because of past felony convictions.
Lewis runs into Blair Bass, a 44-year-old customer service attendant. He was released from prison in 2009 for a felony conviction from 2001. Upon release, he says he was notified by the state’s elections division that his voting rights had been restored. A few months ago, Bass received another letter from the county telling him that he’s no longer eligible to vote because of his felony conviction. This confused him, because the county had also just sent him his voter identification card. He displays it from his wallet; it shows he registered in April 2011.
Bass wants to know if he should vote in November, but Lewis can’t be sure if he qualifies. She’s worked for years trying to get more black people to the polls, so it pains her to say what comes next. She tells Bass, as she has many others like him, not to vote.
Lewis fears that the former felons are headed into a “trap” set for them, and for the whole voting rights movement—one in which confused felons could end up in legal trouble and accused of voter fraud. Her suspicions are not unfounded. An organization called Tampa Vote Fair has been besieging the county supervisor of elections with alarmist cries of ex-felon voter fraud. No such fraud has been found in the county, but the group has managed to cloud public opinion on its existence either way. And thanks to multiple changes in election law since 2007—including draconian new measures signed by Governor Rick Scott in 2011—state and county election officials seem just as confused about which ex-felons can and cannot vote.
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Lewis’s booth sits in a broad patch of treeless green space, where no one can miss it. She and her colleagues are surveying the crowds at Rowlett Park, looking for the formerly incarcerated so that they can encourage them to “check their status.” The women bring each person over to their booth to see if his or her name is on a list of 1,816 felons who have had their voting rights restored. If the name’s there, the person is eligible to vote and can register on the spot. If it’s not, then they are potentially ineligible, and they’re sent to the county supervisor of elections’ booth a few feet away, where an election official helps them begin the process toward restoration. There is a five- to seven-year waiting period under Governor Scott’s new rules.