‘Words Can’t Explain How I Feel.’ Florida Felons Vote for First Time Since Rights Restoration

August 13, 2020by C. Isaiah Smalls II, Miami Herald (TNS)
From left, Tabatha Bailey, Ijamyn Gray and Deshaun Jones pose for a photo after voting in Miami Tuesday, August 11, 2020. Each threw up "fours" in honor of Amendment 4, a measure that restored the right to vote for them and other former felons. (C. Isaiah Smalls II/Miami Herald/TNS)

MIAMI — Deshaun Jones couldn’t sleep Monday night.

Anticipation gnawed at her insides as she went on the internet, researching and evaluating candidates. The very next day the 44-year-old social worker would do something that she hadn’t done in more than a decade: She voted.

Jones was among several felons who joined the Circle of Brotherhood, a nonprofit that encourages Black men to be community leaders, in marching to the polls for early voting on Tuesday. The demonstration took place in Brownsville and encouraged everyone in earshot to not take voting for granted.

“For all the women who are coming out of prison, all the women who are in there right now — my vote was for them,” said Jones, donning a homemade shirt that featured her Department of Corrections number on one side and her voter identification number on the other.

This marks the first major election since the passing of Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution, which restored voting rights for more than 1 million convicted felons. Voters approved the measure in 2018, but its implementation turned contentious as legislators enacted barriers that limited who could actually cast ballots.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition estimates Black Americans encompass about one-third of the felons who had their voting rights restored. Many, like 40-year-old Ijamyn Gray, will vote for their very first time.

“I feel like I actually have a voice,” Gray said.

Like Jones, Gray also did his homework. The Coconut Grove native highlighted the importance of voting in local elections to the crowd of 50 people prior to the demonstration.

Voting “didn’t matter,” Gray said. “Why? Because they always keep our mind focused on the president. But what we really need to worry about is what goes on around us locally.”

Lyle Muhammad, the Circle of Brotherhood’s executive director, echoed Gray, saying that 2020 could be the most significant election year of the century.

“The largest changeover in leadership that this county has seen in decades [is] about to take place,” Muhammad, 54, said. “We’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that directly affects people’s opportunity and right to vote, we have swirling controversy even around voting by mail and there’s not enough people who know about the early voting process.”

Chants of “Get out and go vote” filled the air as the march began on Northwest 24th Avenue at the organization’s headquarters. A slew of candidates, including Melba Pearson, County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava and Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert III, participated in the demonstration that ended at the Joseph Caleb Center polling site on Northwest 22nd Avenue

“It’s with real joy and vindication that we march with those who have finally been restored to full citizenship,” Levine Cava said. “They’ve done their time, they’re eager to participate and I’m here to support.”

“Being here today is full circle,” added Pearson, who was part of the American Civil Liberties Union leadership group that helped get Amendment 4 passed. “It’s a powerful moment.”

When marchers arrived at the Caleb Center, they were greeted by campaign workers dancing to old school R&B that blared on nearby speakers. Some joined in the celebration, while others headed straight to the polls. Jones was one of the few who, after briefly getting her groove on, made a beeline to the voting booth. The Miami Gardens resident returned a short time later, a huge smile plastered across her face.

“Words can’t explain how I feel,” she said, her voice trailing off as she tried to describe her emotions.

Then suddenly, it hit her: “Liberated.”

———

©2020 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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