Coral Nichols will be eligible to vote again when she is 188 years old. That’s the estimate, at least, if she pays the state of Florida $100 per month to satisfy her nearly $190,000 debt.
Nichols is one of 1.4 million people with felony convictions in Florida who had their right to vote restored last fall following the passage of Amendment 4, a victory that marked one of the most significant expansions of the right to vote in the United States in the last century.
“It was completely amazing,” Nichols said, recalling when the ballot initiative passed in November. “We had all worked so hard, and we had all believed that the people in the state of Florida believed in second chances.”
Many activists and experts argue that Amendment 4 was self-executing, meaning that once it was passed by voters, the measure would be put into effect, no questions asked.
But Republicans in the state legislature last week passed a new bill making regaining the vote conditional on having first fully repaid any outstanding fines and fees — including ones not related to their felony conviction.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has said he will sign the bill into law in the coming days. When he does, it could keep people like Nichols from the ballot box for the rest of their lives.
Nichols, 41, grew up in Oklahoma. Her father, a Vietnam War veteran, was abusive, and Nichols says stealing money from her family and being able to buy herself new things made her feel good. Her father died when she was 21, and Nichols’ spending habits spiraled. “My addiction became money,” she said.
Nichols embezzled money from an organization she worked for and attempted suicide before being arrested. While in jail, Nichols says she turned her life over to God. She was sentenced to five years in prison and 10 years’ probation, and ordered to pay $190,000 in restitution. A judge later converted that restitution order into a civil lien and called her sentence complete.
Nichols, who now lives in Seminole, Florida, says she told this story often while fighting for Amendment 4. Since her release, she has co-founded a non-profit organization that helps people with drug addiction deal with the court system, and sees herself as living proof that people can change their lives given the chance.
“I finished my probation,” she said. “I registered to vote.”
Chiraag Bains, the director of Legal Strategies at Demos, a think tank often involved in voting rights litigation, said Supreme Court precedent says it’s unconstitutional to price people out of their vote.
“The bill that the governor is expected to sign into law establishes blatant wealth discrimination in the restoration of rights process,” Bains told ThinkProgress. “The bill will create two classes of returning citizens… [and] under this bill your ability to pay will govern whether you can participate in democracy.”
Bains believes there is a strong case to be made that the legislation is blatantly discriminatory and punishes people for their poverty, but says he isn’t taking anything for granted. “Especially with civil rights [litigation] and especially when Trump has been filling the judiciary with quite conservative jurists,” he added.
Bains said that in addition to the argument that Florida’s fines-and-fees legislation creates two classes of returning citizens, he also has concerns about due process rights.
Currently, there is no way for returning citizens to know exactly how much they owe. This also makes it basically impossible to estimate how many people would be affected by the legislation, though it is likely hundreds of thousands.
The measure also creates a chilling effect, experts say, that will keep thousands of people who are potentially eligible to vote from ever registering out of fear, and could feed a voter fraud myth often perpetrated by the right.
“People move, mail gets lost, etc. So if someone got their rights back, registered and votes, but doesn’t know they have money owed, they’d be committing a felony and play into the right’s ‘voter fraud’ myth,” Nailah Summers, communications director for activist group Dream Defenders, said in an email.
“This bill is a huge set-up, besides the often and correctly pointed-to poll tax.”
Erica Racz, a 31-year-old returning citizen living in Lehigh Acres, Florida, believes she owes about $57,000 in court fees, but says it’s been impossible to get an exact figure.
“They gave me such a runaround,” Racz told ThinkProgress. The state said some things were sealed and that in order to access other things, she would need to contact federal agencies. “Nobody could tell me anything. They couldn’t give me a direct answer.”
In January, Racz registered to vote the day Amendment 4 was officially implemented in Florida. “I’m nervous but so excited,” Racz told ThinkProgress, her hands shaking, as she registered in the Lee County Supervisor’s Office. For a decade, on election nights, she felt helpless, but finally, she said, it felt “somewhat like normalcy.”
Now, just five months later, Racz recalls the moment on the phone. “It was like an up, and then a straight down,” she said. “I was clueless. I kind of just knew I could go register to vote.”
Racz says she didn’t realize she would be affected by the legislation until she started to do her own research, and she has since gotten involved in the effort to protect Amendment 4. When she spoke with ThinkProgress last week, she said she’d just received the final version of the legislation and had just been trying to read through it.
“It’s all such confusing wording, and I believe it’s intentional, but I’m educating myself now and I’m opening my eyes and I’m seeing how things really work,” she said. “It’s really not for the people. It’s not what the people voted for. It’s not what people supported. It’s heartbreaking.”
Racz believes she will be able to vote someday. She intends to keep educating herself and continue her advocacy work. Nichols hasn’t given up hope either. She said she hopes the conversation about Amendment 4 will spark a large conversation about criminal justice and civil rights for returning citizens.
“The criminal justice system… needs to be defined,” Nichols said. “We need to understand the full merit of the words that we use like redemption and restitution… We use those words so flagrantly. We are not really working out the meaning of those words.”
She added, “Hope deferred is not hope denied… And I believe the fight doesn’t stop with the right to vote. The fight will come to the end when we have all our civil rights restored at the completion of our sentence.”
In a recent statement, Desmond Meade, the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which led the Amendment 4 fight, said that though he was disappointed by the legislation, “we have not lost sight of the fact that Amendment 4 is LAW.”
“We call on the governor to side with the 1.4 million Returning Citizens and insist for the better legislation,” Meade said in the release.
“For now, we will continue to move forward in the spirit of creating a more inclusive and vibrant democracy for all by seeking to register qualified Returning Citizens in Florida.”
When the fines and fees bill becomes law, Racz and Nichols won’t be among that exclusive, eligible group. Even on payment plans, they might never again have access to the ballot box.
Racz wonders now if the state just wants her to leave. Because of her conviction she’s struggled to land a well-paying job, and even if she could get on a payment plan, she says she wouldn’t want to.
“I have a 10-year-old daughter,” she said. “If I come across $57,000, it’s going toward a college fund. It’s going toward life.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misquoted Chiraag Bains as saying Trump had appointed “white conservative jurists” to the bench. It has been corrected to quote Bains as saying Trump has appointed “quite conservative jurists.”