MIAMI – There has been an ongoing effort to help Florida ex-felons pay off their legal fines and fees in order for them to vote in November’s election.
LeBron James, Michael Bloomberg, the Miami Heat and Miami Dolphins have all donated to the cause, but voter registration is less than two weeks away and the process of rights restoration is proving to be long and complicated for some ex-cons.
Tye Stephens is one of those former convicts. She is hoping this year’s general election will give her a chance to have her voice count, but around $1300 in court fees stand in her way.
“I’ve never voted before in my life. I’m 37 years old. I was a felon at 19,” Stephens said. “It’s real and it’s hard and I don’t know. I don’t know why they want to do that to people.”
Stephens is now wondering if this year she will be free to participate thanks to the promise of millions of dollars raised by Bloomberg, LeBron and other celebrities.
“It would be so amazing if I were able to vote for myself,” she said.
Those donations are under scrutiny though, as Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has asked state and federal law enforcement to investigate whether there were any potential election law violations, saying it was done at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Stephens said her court costs date back to her first arrest in 2003 for burglary related charges. Over the years she’s been back in prison for probation violation but said she paid increments toward those original fees.
“Every single time that you stop paying it or you can’t afford to pay it, you have to go down to the courthouse, you have to start a payment plan all over again,” Stephens explained.
At times, she said food and housing have taken priority, despite that the unpaid debt also means her license has been suspended.
“Forget the fact that you can’t vote because you’re not really thinking about that. At that point, you’re just trying to live,” she said. “If I do want to change my life, you guys have to make it easier for us to do it.”
Lyle Muhammad is Executive Director of The Circle of Brotherhood and is working to help with voter registration and education in South Florida
“If they have done their time and the only thing standing in their way for them to register to vote is fines and fees, they will be taken care of,” he said. “This season may never come again so we need to take advantage of it now.”