Bonnie Raysor had her heart set on voting next year, a decade after losing her right to participate in the most cherished ritual of the American democratic process.
The 58-year-old Boynton Beach, Florida, resident lost her vote in October 2010 after being sentenced to a year-and-a-half in prison for illegally selling opioids to earn the money she needed to feed her own drug addiction.
Since her release from prison in 2011, Raysor has moved on with her life. She said she has kicked her drug habit and now works full-time. She owns a home, and pays her bills. Her re-entry to society would be complete, she says, if only she could vote again.
Raysor was elated in November when voters in Florida passed Amendment Four, a measure that returned the ballot to people with felony convictions.
But her joy was short-lived. Last month, Florida’s GOP-led legislature passed a bill requiring people with felony convictions to first pay off all their fines and fees before being eligible to have their vote restored.
Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron De Santis signed the bill into law on Friday. Now, Raysor and thousands of Floridians like her who thought they had regained the vote remain unable to exercise one of the most fundamental rights of American citizenship.
Raysor told ThinkProgress that she’s deeply disappointed and angry about having the vote snatched away from her, after believing it was finally within her grasp.
“People who have served time have had enough of false hope. Give us some reality,” Raysor said, with palpable frustration in her voice. “Give it back to us. Give us a chance. Give us back our right — our constitutional right.”
Florida voters last November overwhelmingly passed Amendment Four, approving a change in the state constitution to restore the voting rights of 1.5 million people with past felony convictions.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Friday signed SB 7066, which denied people with felony convictions of those voting rights until they pay back any fees and fines owed to the courts. The new law is likely to prevent tens of thousands of people — disproportionately low-income residents and people of color — from voting.
Two other states — Iowa and Kentucky — have Jim Crow-era lifetime bans against people with felony convictions written into their state constitutions. Florida’s may no longer be written in state law, but apparently it will continue to be the de facto law for many thousands of people with past felony convictions.
In Raysor’s case, she owes more than $4,000, a sum she expects she won’t be able to pay off until 2031. That’s when she finally completes a payment plan she worked out with the state to settle her outstanding court debts.
But she’s not just waiting around while she pays off the money she owes. Raysor is among the first people to file a suit challenging the new law. If it’s successful, she and tens of thousands of other disenfranchised Floridians may finally have their voting rights restored for good.
“It’s important. Our voice is important. It’s what our veterans have died for. It’s our freedom,” Raysor said.
Her lawsuit was filed late Friday — just hours after DeSantis signed the measure into law — by the Campaign Legal Center at the U.S. District Court of Northern Florida. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Brennan Center for Justice filed a separate lawsuit challenging the law Friday evening.
The CLC’s legal action sues on behalf of Raysor and another woman, Diane Sherrill, 58, from St. Petersburg, Florida, who has past convictions for drug possession and prostitution.
The suit says that Sherrill, a grandmother and active church member who lives on a Social Security payments and a small income working part-time as a hostess at Ruby Tuesdays for $8 an hour. She has been drug-free and sober for more than a decade, with no criminal convictions since 2005. But she still owes the court $2,279, so she can’t afford to buy back her vote.
The suit argues that the newly-enacted law imposes a “modern-day poll tax,” violating the 14th and 24th Amendments of the Constitution. Restoration of voting rights should not be contingent on the payment of fines and fees.
“You cannot withhold fundamental rights from people just because they can’t pay something,” said Danielle Lang, the Campaign Legal Center’s co-director of voting rights and redistricting.
“You cannot put people back in jail just because they can’t pay their fines and fees. You also should not be able to hold people’s fundamental rights on that ground,” she said.
The lawsuit also maintains that the new law is confusing: Its vague language makes it difficult for many people with past convictions to determine which of their outstanding debts need to be paid off in order to satisfy the measure.
And if someone ends up registering to vote when they shouldn’t have, they could face prosecution and end up back in prison. As a result, people with convictions “find themselves in need of a lawyer just fo find out if they are eligible to vote,” the lawsuit stated.
Raysor describes the addiction that led to her incarceration years ago as a “slippery slope.”
She became addicted to opioids in 2006, she said, when she would visit her dying father-in-law in the hospital. She tried a few of his painkillers to help ease a migraine and soon found herself hooked. She also ended up marrying someone addicted to drugs, which only worsened her downward spiral.
Over the years, she has managed to find her way back from addiction. Today, Raysor drives each week in her new Chevy Malibu to and from her job at an air duct cleaning company in South Florida, where she earns $13 per hour as an office manager.
She co-owns a home at a 55-and-older community with a platonic partner, who pays the mortgage each month. But she is responsible for covering the utilities and a range of other expenses such as groceries, her cell phone bill, prescription medications, car payments, and insurance. A 19-year-old daughter lives with her while attending college and working a part-time job.
Raysor estimates that she has about $60 left over after each biweekly paycheck — barely, she says, enough for new clothes when she needs them. About half of that, $30 per month, goes to paying off outstanding court fees that cover the cost of the public defender who did “absolutely nothing” representing her in court.
Whether she will regain the right to vote before her 70th birthday, she says, may depend now on the outcome of her lawsuit.
“I pulled myself up the trap door until the addiction stopped,” she said. “I pulled myself up, I’m working, I’m paying my bills. I don’t know what more I can do.”