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What Federal Judge's Ruling On Florida Law Restricting Felon Voting Means For Voters

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In November 2018 voters in Florida approved a new constitutional amendment that restored the right to vote to roughly 1 1/2 million people in the state who had felony convictions. One of those people who regained the right to vote was the Reverend Greg James. He's a pastor at Life Church International Center in Tallahassee, and we caught up with him just after the 2018 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GREG JAMES: This is just the beginning to freedom in its fullest. There's one thing to know that you have paid your debt. There's another thing to get the title to the vehicle. It gives you that sense of, wow, it's mine, finally.

CHANG: Well, then last June, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would restore the right to vote to people with felony records only if they first paid all outstanding fines and court fees. And now a federal judge has ruled that state bill unconstitutional, calling it a, quote, "pay-to-vote system." So we decided to call back Reverend Greg James to get his view on these recent developments.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JAMES: Thank you for having me on. I am excited to be here, and truly, it's a great day. It's Memorial Day. And it's twofold. We're remembering those veterans who have paid a major part in our history. But I'll also say what a special day for the ruling to be handed down on such a wonderful day that we can remember those who have served time and are now able to be remembered at the voting booth. So it's a twofold for me. I know it's a...

CHANG: Yeah.

JAMES: ...National day.

CHANG: Well, tell me...

JAMES: But it's twofold when I look at it.

CHANG: Tell me; what do you make of this new court ruling? Were you surprised that the court took your side on this one?

JAMES: Well, I mean, it wasn't a surprise. We were always constantly saying, why not? Why not? And the reason we were saying that was because we knew that it's just unconstitutional. I mean, I've paid my time. I've served my time. So what stops me now from the opportunity and the right that's given to all, the right to vote?

CHANG: You know, the last - sorry. Go ahead.

JAMES: Go on. Go on.

CHANG: I'm curious because the last time we spoke, you said that you were really optimistic about getting the right to vote back. But one thing you did say to me stayed with me, and that was that you still had questions back then about what kind of resistance you might still face if you did try to exercise your newly restored right to vote. So I'm curious. What has happened? Besides this most recent bill and then the court ruling, what else has happened since we last talked? Did you personally encounter resistance to getting registered?

JAMES: Well, I think the registration that we did was amazing. We were able to register well over a thousand people...

CHANG: Yeah.

JAMES: ...That particular day. And there were some formerly incarcerated men and women that were able to vote in the month of May. There were people who voted in Tampa for the first time. So we kept a watchful eye on places where elections were taking place and where those formerly incarcerated men and women were going to the poll, casting their vote. So that gave us the push and the assurance to know that we were in a safe place. So...

CHANG: And what about you, reverend? Were you able to register and exercise your right to vote since, or are you waiting for this November?

JAMES: Well, I'm waiting for November. I have registered. I have my voting card in a frame. It's precious to me. So I'm just waiting for November. And in the process, we were still able to continue a voters registration drive. Even though things were in the court system and even though there was, you know, appeals...

CHANG: Right.

JAMES: ...Being made...

CHANG: Right.

JAMES: We still knew that the outcome would be favorable. So we continued...

CHANG: Oh.

JAMES: ...Our efforts to register folks to vote.

CHANG: That is the Reverend Greg James. He's a pastor at Life Church International Center in Tallahassee.

Thank you very much for joining us today, reverend.

JAMES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.