RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Florida, it used to be that someone who convicted a felony could never again vote - a lifetime ban. One year ago, though, a new constitutional amendment ended the ban. Then, though, the State Legislature put up a roadblock. They passed legislation requiring former felons to pay all their fines and fees before they could cast any vote.
Danny Rivero from member station WLRN reports there is a workaround to those rules, but it's being implemented only in Democratic parts of the state.
DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: There are 17 people here on the docket in a Miami courtroom, and every one of them is waiting to get their voting rights restored.
CYNTHIA CRAY: I feel excited about moving forward in life.
RIVERO: Cynthia Cray just got her voting rights back. She hasn't been able to cast a ballot since she was convicted of a felony 10 years ago. And she signed up to vote on the spot.
CRAY: I've been a convicted felon for so long, and we got Donald Trump in the presidency. We can't keep having that foolishness. I vote 'cause I don't want another Trump.
RIVERO: Scenes like this are taking place in Democratic strongholds around Florida. Cynthia Cray and the others in the courtroom technically haven't finished their court sentences as required under the new state law. But that law also lets courts declare someone's sentence complete, no matter whether they still owe money or community service time.
Here in Miami, prosecutors, public defenders and the local judges, who are all elected, agreed to work together to restore voting rights. Carlos Martinez is the top public defender in Miami-Dade County.
CARLOS MARTINEZ: We are following the plain language of the statute. And the plain language of the statute, as it is implemented in Miami-Dade County, will mean that the overwhelming majority of people who have felony convictions will qualify under this process.
RIVERO: Volunteer attorneys are fielding calls to help people with felonies take their cases through the system. Martinez says this could mean lots of new voters.
MARTINEZ: The estimate for Miami-Dade County is that there are about 150,000 people that will qualify under this process.
RIVERO: Miami-Dade County is one of just four counties with a new program to streamline the process of restoring voting rights. Those four counties include Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Tampa - more than a third of Florida's population. And they're all heavily Democratic in a key state for this year's presidential election.
KATHRYN DEPALO-GOULD: I think the effect certainly could be dramatic.
RIVERO: Kathryn DePalo-Gould is a political science professor at Florida International University. She says Republicans could suffer politically if GOP-leaning counties don't start speeding up the process of restoring voting rights.
DEPALO-GOULD: If they're missing out on those votes - you know, we have very close elections in the state of Florida - this could mean a huge difference going into 2020.
RIVERO: In fact, the law's author is frustrated that Republican parts of the state aren't doing more to restore voting rights. Jamie Grant is a Republican state representative from Tampa.
JAMIE GRANT: Yeah. I mean, I didn't create the waivers not to be used.
RIVERO: When Grant wrote the state law that made paying off fees and fines a condition for getting voting rights back, some activists called it a poll tax and claimed he wanted to keep people from voting.
GRANT: If I'm trying to suppress the vote and if I am Jim Crow Jamie, why did I create the waivers the Democrats are turning around and using? Which one is it? If the effect of what I passed switched the state blue, so be it. I'm good with that. I did my job.
RIVERO: The programs across the four participating counties are still in their infancy, but all four plan to be very active between now and the election in November.
For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami.
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