What it’s like fighting for the right to vote in Florida as an ex-felon

After Florida voted overwhelmingly to let 1.5 million formerly incarcerated people regain the right to vote, Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton, two Black women who had completed their sentences and probation for felony convictions, cast their ballots in 2019 for the first time in years.

Just months later, they lost that newfound power: In May 2019, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature, backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, enacted Senate Bill 7066. It required that formerly incarcerated people pay any restitution, fines, or court fees before they could register to vote and have their rights restored.

More than 85,000 released felons had already registered to vote. Now they faced a new roadblock. Backlash to the new ordinance was swift, with critics likening it to a modern-day Reconstruction-era poll tax. And in a state where election outcomes are often close, Floridians with prior felony convictions could be a key voting bloc.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a felony disenfranchisement suit on behalf of McCoy and Singleton, arguing that the law is particularly harmful to these women because of their race, gender, and economic status. According to the SPLC, “nearly a quarter of all Black women in Florida live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate for Black women with a felony conviction is more than 43 percent.” After the bill was passed, McCoy learned that she owed about $7,500 in restitution; Singleton owed $12,000. Interest has been accruing.

Earlier this month, a conservative majority federal appeals court ruled against the women, overturning a lower court’s decision that SB 7066 was unconstitutional. The requirement that formerly incarcerated people pay their fines and fees stands, and the US Supreme Court recently declined to take up the case.

Over the past few years, McCoy and Singleton have become two of the country’s biggest voting rights advocates and educators. They have picked up the torch from other Black women suffragists and activists like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, and Fannie Lou Hamer.

“We are more energized now,” McCoy told Vox after their latest loss. “We are going to go out there and change minds.”

I talked to McCoy and Singleton about their mission to educate people about voting as they fight voter suppression. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

An appellate court recently ruled that your voting rights shouldn’t be restored until you pay off all restitution, fees, and court costs. What’s your reaction to this latest roadblock?

Rosemary McCoy

For the hundreds of thousands of Floridians affected, the decision is a disaster. For me, that means we need to do a lot more work. Part of the work is to educate the public on the local and state level so we can elect better leaders and get better judges. And we also need to work on changing laws of oppressive leadership that deliberately disenfranchise a group of people. I’m going to continue to do the work. I’m energized.

Sheila Singleton

If I’m being honest, the system is broken. We don’t have the power we need to overtake those in power. We went out, we petitioned, we got our right to vote, and then those with money and power stepped in to take our right to vote away. They’re doing anything they possibly can do to prevent us from voting them out of office. Everybody should have a vote because everybody has a voice. If we don’t get out there and fight for what’s right, the people with wealth and power get to do whatever they want to do. Rosemary’s and my objective is to keep fighting, get the word out, and convince as many people as possible to join our cause.

Fabiola Cineas

Before Senate Bill 7066 was passed, what did Amendment 4, the measure that initially restored felon voting rights in Florida, mean to you?

Rosemary McCoy

It brought joy. Because when we say we are a democracy and we used the ballot initiative and people responded and most of the people — we were going out to get people to sign the petition — they didn’t even know that this was going on. They didn’t know, for instance, if someone had shoplifted something for $300 in Florida, that would be a felony charge. So someone could have been disenfranchised for 25 years because of $300! That’s how pitiful this is.

So when Amendment 4 passed, I thought, “Oh, my God! A piece of liberation. A piece so that maybe we can feel whole again.” I thought maybe I could feel more positive and have a desire to move forward and look at America in a different way. I could see the power and the truth that our votes do count — until Senate Bill 7066 came along.

Sheila Singleton poses after voting in March 2019 after having her voting rights restored.
Courtesy of Sheila Singleton

Sheila Singleton

I took so many pictures because I hadn’t voted in seven years. My voice counts, so that’s how important Amendment 4 was to me. And I feel like whatever my crime was, it was 10 years ago and you’re telling me you’re gonna hold me down for the rest of my life? No! Our votes gotta pass to make a change.

That was grimy the way they did the Senate bill — how are you going to take people’s rights back when it was on the ballot and passed? And then you go in and try to make changes?

Rosemary McCoy

Because it was a Republican majority (the bill passed 22-17 in the Senate and 67-42 in the House along party lines). That’s why SB 7066 happened. Why not give it back to the people? They let the people decide on Amendment 4, so let them decide on SB 7066.

Sheila Singleton

They didn’t even give the people a chance. They had no say in that.

Fabiola Cineas

The stipulations of Senate Bill 7066 have been compared to a poll tax — that you have to pay all fees and restitution in order to register to vote and cast a ballot. What’s your reaction to the idea that you are being disenfranchised in the same way Black people were barred from voting 150 years ago?

Sheila Singleton

That’s the thing. I went through my probation 10 years ago. Now you’re telling me I have to go back through the system again to try to pay this money? That should’ve been included in my probation. I didn’t know anything about my restitution.

This is actually how I met Rosemary. We were at the office together when we were trying to figure out our papers and how much we owed. They didn’t tell us anything about restitution because the restitution was somewhere else. Some people get out of jail and they don’t know nothing about their restitution because they don’t follow up on this kind of stuff. They don’t let people know that they owe this money. And there’s recurring interest. I feel like it’s illegal the way it was done, so I’m not going to pay anything until we get through with this case.

Rosemary McCoy

Duval County, where we live, does not have a payment arrangement or plan for restitution. If you owe restitution, you must pay the full amount. And the other part of that is, according to the restitution statute, if a person is innocent, then how can you assess them to pay restitution? Restitution is supposed to have an end date. It’s not supposed to be forever.

Fabiola Cineas

What do you say to the people who don’t care, the people who, because of your records, don’t believe you should be able to vote again?

Rosemary McCoy

First of all, I pay taxes. Sheila pays taxes. That’s the number one thing. And we are still citizens of the United States of America. If they have a mindset like that, and especially if they’re calling themselves a Christian, they need to think about forgiveness. But we are more energized now. No matter what you do to us, we just multiply like Bébé’s Kids. All we are going to do is go out there and speak to someone.

Fabiola Cineas

Black women are recognized as some of the most loyal and dedicated voters and organizers in the country. Can you each talk about what it feels like to be a Black woman who is being restricted from fully stepping into her power, but also stepping into what seems to be a calling for so many Black women?

Rosemary McCoy

Black women have been very powerful in all movements. I’m talking about back during slavery. I’m talking about Harriet Tubman freeing her people. Black women have so much determination. And they know. The number of incarcerated women in this country has gone up by more than 700 percent in the past quarter-century. They are arresting a lot of women. Because we are powerful, and we are not going to stop.

Southern Poverty Law Center staff Nancy Abudu (left) and Caren Short (right) and McCoy plaintiffs Rosemary McCoy (center left) and Sheila Singleton (center right).
Southern Poverty Law Center

Sheila Singleton

As Black women, me and Rosemary are advocates. It doesn’t matter how they try to stop us. We are going to win anyway. This makes me want to fight even more. We share what we know with the people that don’t know. For example, when they give out the stimulus money, we tried to get people to see it wasn’t enough. How are you giving people $1,200, but you can give the millionaires all of the small-businesses money and don’t do nothing about it? They won’t give us money because they want us to continue to work for pennies. That’s how I look at it — they want us to get back to work.

Fabiola Cineas

And how does the voting restriction influence your day-to-day work and mission?

Sheila Singleton

Me and Rosemary do the same thing. We called people and made sure they voted during the primary. We remind them to vote early. We also work on getting people to complete the 2020 census. We make sure people go out and vote early or vote by mail.

Rosemary McCoy

But the jobs we have as advocates at New Florida Majority are temporary positions. After the November election, we won’t have jobs. The Lord has taken care of us, our kids, our grandkids, so we know we will overcome and that we will be employed. We will be able to provide for our people and we will be able to change our community. We also started a nonprofit organization we named after Harriet Tubman, the Harriet Tubman Women’s Auxiliary. Through the organization, we are going out there and changing minds. We have been beat down for so long.

Fabiola Cineas

At this point in the fight to regain such a significant right, what defines each of you and brings you joy?

Rosemary McCoy

I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, so Florida is a culture shock. I came here through the military. We were stationed here. I had a home and raised my children. I learned the truth when I got arrested — that this is a state, as a whole, that is still oppressing Black and brown people. Having been born and raised in Philadelphia, I’m not afraid to speak up. But what I found here is it’s hard to get people to move in a certain direction.

I consider myself complete — I was raised in a house with a mother and father who loved me. I enjoyed myself, running up and down the street, going to the swimming pool, playing Double Dutch and hopscotch. I enjoyed all of that. I believe that I had a great life. I traveled, I was in the military. I had government positions.

But reenfranchising 1.5 million more people is now part of my career and what brings me joy. I enjoy serving people. My experience in the criminal justice system changed things for the better because sometimes you have to get the experience in order to understand. As a common citizen, I didn’t know. I was just working, raising my children and enjoying life. When someone got arrested and went to prison, I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t know about the laws being passed or the people we were electing, and why we needed to focus on electing certain types of people. Today, I am very focused.

Sheila Singleton

Being born and raised in Duval, my TV now stays on MSNBC. I like to know what’s going on. I have a Facebook where I share everything I possibly can to anyone who is listening, to help them understand what’s going on. This is a fight that will end, but it’s terrible because it seems like Congress don’t have no control. It seems like Trump has locked everything down with the judges — they’re doing everything he says. Right now, I see the councilmen and governor opening up schools, and our children are catching the virus. Nobody cares that it is killing people. I’m on my way to a viewing right now for a man who died from coronavirus. They’re trying to downplay this thing so bad, like it’s okay for people to die. Everyone is walking around like it’s normal, but we are in a fight.

Though things aren’t going the way we want them to go as returning citizens, we are in this now. We are making sure that other people will get out of their homes to vote. It feels like me and Rosemary are the spokeswomen for what’s going on today in society. In Duval, people are so relaxed. They don’t talk about the issues. It’s scary because just imagine if this man gets four more years.

Fabiola Cineas

In thinking about how you want your futures to look, what is your idea of liberation? What would liberation look like for each of you?

Sheila Singleton

My liberation is that Donald Trump loses, Biden wins, and he changes everything back like it was and gives us our rights back. Hopefully, he puts things in order by changing the judicial system. That’s what I’m looking forward to. That would make me feel really gracious, getting my rights back to vote. Being able to get a job, without people saying, “Hey, you’re not qualified because you did this.” Liberation is also being able to change someone else’s life by telling them where I came from and what God did for me — that that’s what made me who I am today. That’s my liberation right there.

Rosemary McCoy

Liberation, to me, is to divide this country into two different countries. Thinking back to how there was a Black Wall Street, where they had their own banks, schools, markets — everything! They were not dependent on this system. Liberation means I’m not dependent on your evil, wicked system that has a noose around my neck. I want to be free from this system. I want to have my own. I don’t want to look to you for your crumbs.


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