This is a story that begins in 2011, when former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Michael Vick went to vote and learned he was not allowed to do so.
“I found out because I had a felony on my record that I couldn’t vote,” said Vick in a YouTube vlog by More Than a Vote, a political empowerment organization led by a collection of Black athletes and artists, including LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. “That was just one of the things I did not know was taken away from me once I was incarcerated and got a felony on my record.”
Vick has since engaged in the voting rights restoration process, and with the help of an attorney, has registered to vote in Florida.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition
But many ex-felons don’t have the financial resources to successfully navigate the voting rights restoration process, which is where More Than a Vote and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) comes in.
The former is a coalition that was created to combat systemic, targeted voter suppression and aims to “educate, energize and protect Black voters.”
The latter is a state-specific effort, which refers to ex-felons as “returning citizens.”
“There are about 774,000 people right now in Florida who cannot vote because they have [outstanding] fines and fees,” says Desmond Meade, executive director of the FRRC, in the above-referenced Vlog. “But see my organization, what we did, we’ve raised over $4 million now, so we help people pay off their fees so they can register to vote.”
According to floridarrc.com, the organization is “working closely with stakeholders … to coordinate the use of the court system and current provisions of the law to address financial obligations for returning citizens who apply. In addition, FRRC has partnered with the League of Women Voters of Florida to develop an Attorney Assistance Program so that pro bono attorneys can assist returning citizens through the process and advocate for relief as needed on a case-by-case basis….”
Returning citizens may also be eligible for direct financial assistance. That assistance comes in the form of a scholarship-type award that is payable directly to the clerk of court for the county in which the returning citizen was convicted.
Fines and Fees: An Obstacle for Florida’s Returning Citizens
In 2018, Amendment 4 restored the voting rights of most Floridians with felony convictions (excepting out those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault). Then the Florida Legislature turned around and effectively barred most ex-felons from voting by passing a law requiring former felons to pay off any outstanding fines and court fees before their voting rights are restored.
The financial cost wasn’t a big concern for a former NFL player like Vick, but he’s well aware that’s not the case for most people, saying, “Some of these fines are just thousands and thousands of dollars, money that people don’t have or can’t generate.
“It’s unfortunate that if you don’t have it, you don’t get a chance to be a part of change,” Vick says, hence his motivation to help spread the word about both More Than a Vote and the FRRC.
Michael Vick’s NFL Career
Michael Vick was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. He played for the Falcons for six years before missing the 2007 and 2008 seasons, sentenced to 23 months in federal prison for running a dog fighting operation and lying about his involvement.
Vick went on to serve 19 months in prison, but was ultimately allowed to return to the NFL, coming back in 2009 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He played five seasons in Philly before wrapping up his career with the New York Jets in 2014 and the Steelers in 2015.
Vick appeared in five games for the Steelers, winning two of his three starts, including a well-remembered “walk-off” win against the San Diego Chargers. That year he completed 40 of 66 passes for 371 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
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