Florida sort of defines the term “swing state.” The smallest of variables can push the outcome of Florida’s elections in one direction or another – in the year 2000 it was “hanging chads” and more recently it appeared it would be the re-enfranchisement of former felons. In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of most felons who had completed their sentences. This was a particularly important turn of events given the massive number of Floridians who could not vote due to felony convictions. Republican leadership in the state, however, has been working tirelessly to undermine the will of the people by making it harder for the formerly incarcerated to exercise their franchise. Some of the obstacles that have been erected include a requirement to clear all debts in order to vote – some former felons have actually been criminally prosecuted for voting without paying what in effect amounts to a poll tax. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to journalist Bianca Fortis who has written an investigative piece chronicling right wing efforts to keep Florida’s most vulnerable populations from participating in the democratic process. Then we dip into the archives to listen to our 2020 discussion with groundbreaking health physicist and nuclear expert, Hattie Carwell.
00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:10 Bianca Fortis – The State of Florida accounts for more than 1/4 of the entire disenfranchised population in the United States.
00:29 Narrator – Florida sort of defines the term “swing state.” The smallest of variables can push the outcome of Florida’s elections in one direction or another – in the year 2000 it was “hanging chads” and more recently it appeared it would be the re-enfranchisement of former felons. In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of most felons who had completed their sentences. This was a particularly important turn of events given the massive number of Floridians who could not vote due to felony convictions. Republican leadership in the state, however, has been working tirelessly to undermine the will of the people by making it harder for the formerly incarcerated to exercise their franchise. Some of the obstacles that have been erected include a requirement to clear all debts in order to vote – some former felons have actually been criminally prosecuted for voting without paying what in effect amounts to a poll tax. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to journalist Bianca Fortis who has written an investigative piece chronicling right wing efforts to keep Florida’s most vulnerable populations from participating in the democratic process. Then we dip into the archives to listen to our 2020 discussion with groundbreaking health physicist and nuclear expert, Hattie Carwell.
1:56 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Bianca Fortis. Bianca is a journalist and a reporting fellow at Pro Publica. Bianca, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
2:06 Bianca Fortis (BF) – Thank you for having me.
2:08 AW – So I wanted to discuss a piece that you wrote for Pro Publica July 21st, entitled “A Government official helped them register. Now they’ve been charged with voter fraud,” and it’s about the Florida voting story that’s kind of been in the news for five years now running, it’s taken an ugly turn, and I wanted to highlight it here on Sea Change Radio. Before we dive into what’s currently happening right now, why don’t you give us a little bit of back story on the history of this topic of felon voting, not just in Florida, but nationally?
2:46 BF – So across the United States, the right to vote many states when you have a felony conviction, they take away your right to vote each state a little bit. And this largely goes back to Jim Crow laws. And so by 2018, Florida was one of only four states where you needed to petition the governor in order to have this right restored.
3:14 AW – And these aren’t just active prisoners, these are people who’ve served time already and then done their time and then are out and about and would not be able to vote unless they petitioned the governor.
3:24 BF – Yes, that is correct.
3:26 AW – And then why don’t you walk us up to 2018 and what happened with amendment four and the subsequent loophole that the Republicans found to kind of squash it?
3:36 BF – So in 20, eighteen, 64% of Florida voters voted to pass this amendment, amendment four, which restored the right to vote for people with felony convictions as long as they were not murder or sex offenses. The following year, the state legislature that was led by Republicans. They implemented another law that said that in order to have this right restored, you needed to have completed quote UN quote all terms of sentence, and that included paying off any fines, fees and restitution which made a lot of people ineligible.
4:16 AW – Let’s dive into that deeper. The legality of it is questionable at best, but then the logistics of it is really makes it you want to pull out your hair and it’s horrifying to hear what has happened to some of these prisoners. Why don’t you explain what happened to some of the people you spoke to for this piece in the 2020 election?
4:37 BF – So in 2020, the Alachua County supervisor of elections and an official who worked there went into the local jail and did a voter registration drive. They did a a series of three events where they were just registering people to vote, but because these laws had passed it made things a little bit confusing. And so there were quite a few people who signed up to vote thinking that they were eligible to vote, but they actually were not under the 2019 law that required paying off these fines and fees. And so now there are 10 people who are being prosecuted for voter fraud.
5:15 AW – So you start the piece highlighting Kelvin Bolton, who had served 2 1/2 years for theft and battery, and he’s about to get released. And on the day of his release, he they say not so fast, you actually have to go to another jail. And it turned out that when these people came and helped him register to vote and then he voted. In 2020, he was committing another act, another felonious act, if you will. And is he still in prison now?
5:43 BF – Yeah, so he so he’s sitting in jail right now. He told me that he wants to go to trial. So he’s actually just sitting in jail waiting for that to happen. But yeah, he was about to be released from his sentence and then, you know, was already dressed and ready to go and they told him you have a warrant open in Alachua County.
6:03 AW – Now we know how the US Supreme Court would probably rule on this, because this seems part of the calculus for the right wing to limit the amount of brown and black people from the ballot box. Have there been any cases that have brought the legality of of the subsequent loophole, this poll tax up to the level of at least the Florida Supreme Court?
6:29 BF – Yeah, so it did. There was sort of a complicated legal history. Initially, a District Court judge had ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional because it was he considered it a pay to vote system, but then that was later overturned. Turned by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and they upheld the law. And then, separately, the Florida State Supreme Court had also found that the law was legitimate.
6:52 AW – Now, it seems completely antithetical to the idea of voting, and when you start digging into the weeds, like the idea of it sounds legitimate enough, maybe on a surface where a voter could be tricked into it. But why don’t you walk us through some of the logistics of how this would work for? For an average citizen who had been convicted of a felony.
7:14 BF – Do you mean under the law, like how they would go about voting now?
7:17 AW – In terms of how they would do this without committing another felony, it’s not that easy.
7:22 BF – Yeah, so the issue is that in Florida, you cannot vote if you are incarcerated.
7:30 BF – Actively incarcerated, right. If you’re actively incarcerated, you cannot vote in the state of Florida. You have to have completed all terms of sentence and that was actually part of amendment. Or the question was what does all terms of sentence mean? And so the 2019 law implemented this rule that you needed to pay off the fines and fees and restitution. Now, the issue is that it can be very complicated to figure out what you owe, particularly if you have felony convictions. In multiple jurisdictions, because there is not one central database where you can determine that information. Each of Florida 67 counties maintains its own database, and there are also separate state databases. And then this also doesn’t include. Convictions and other states or federal convictions. So if you have a long criminal history, you need to go to each of those jurisdictions to figure out what you owe.
8:25 AW – And the onus is on you to know all of the possible counties?
8:28 BF – Right.
8:29 AW – These counties that could be having some sort of lien against you?
8:34 BF – And as you could imagine, that is very difficult for many people, especially if you actually are actively incarcerated, you may not have access to those databases at all. There was a political scientist, Tracy Burch, at Northwestern University who actually sort of did a study and she took a random sample of 153 Florida residents who had felony convictions and tried to determine tried to see if she could determine what they owed. And she could only find consistent information for three of those people.
9:07 AW – And these are people who are usually not in the financial strength to be able to pay some of these processing fees as well. This isn’t just free like, you know, “look it up online, get your information, and then register to vote it.” There are more hurdles to it than that.
9:22 BF – Right, exactly some and in each county is different to the rules. Change some counties. Do charge you processing fees to access some of these documents and you just sort of have to figure that out as you go.
9:35 AW – Give us an idea, if you can, of the range that somebody would have to pay to clear their record with the state. Let’s just assume one or two counties and then does it depend on how long it was since they registered to vote, or how long their prison sentence was?
9:55 BF – It depends. I mean each case is really different. Pro Publica had done reporting in the past on Amendment 4 where they found people who owed, you know, upwards of $50,000. But each case is totally different. It depends on the jurisdiction, it depends on the judge depends on will interest accrue and also Florida. Many of these counties will also refer if people are not paying off this money. They will also refer that to collections agencies, which I think may also add extra charges to this.
10:37 (Music Break)
11:25 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to journalist Bianca Fortis. So, Bianca, you mentioned that Pro Publica has spoken to people who have referred to this poll tax.
For lack of a better term, this poll tax in Florida has made it so that an individual would have to pay up to $50,000 in one instance in order to have their franchise reinstated and to vote. That sounds insane to me. Maybe you can kind of walk us through how the legal system is handling this very bizarre reality you talk to, for example, this guy, Brian Kramer, why don’t you explain how he’s going about prosecuting this and maybe give us an idea how this law is affecting people beyond just stripping them of their franchise?
12:17 BF – I should say, of the 10 people that are being prosecuted in Elastic County, I don’t know. I don’t think any of them have fees that they owe that are that high. I’m not sure about that, but those are, but that is an example of what Pro Publica has found in the past, but in Alachua county, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had done an investigation into Alachua county jail and identified a number of people who they say had voted despite being ineligible under this new law, and so that was referred to the local prosecutor, Brian Kramer, who is now pursuing ten of these cases. And so his position is basically like, look, this is the law. He says that they have strong evidence against these individuals. And he is going to pursue them because they broke the law.
13:08 AW – And a listener who might hear, oh, there’s these are 10 people who, who are in the crosshairs of some arcane law might dismiss this, but why don’t you put into context the number of people that this amendment four originally affected how it changed their voting status? And then how these new laws are kind of reversing that for a significant portion of the electorate in Florida, this is not just 10 people here or there.
13:38 BF Sure. So there was a Florida political scientist who estimated that over 1,000,000 people would have been eligible to vote under Amendment 4. And after the 2019 law was passed, he found that 77% of those people actually had outstanding legal financial. Obligations. So the 2019 law basically made them ineligible.
14:02 AW – And maybe you can also speak to how these numbers disproportionately affect brown and black population.
14:11 BF – So Dan Smith, the political scientist from Florida, specifically compared black and white voters. And so it was pretty clear that the new law disproportionately impacted black individuals. He found that 26% of white Floridians with a felony conviction would be eligible because they don’t have any legal financial obligations. But the number for black people was actually only 18%.
14:37 AW – Wow. And in Tennessee, one in five black adults are barred from voting due to a felony conviction. Just to give you an idea, that’s 20% of black adults in the state of Tennessee alone who are not allowed to vote. But back to Florida. Let’s talk about Ron DeSantis and his attitude towards all of this. I I’m sure he’s “just doing his job” and saying that everything went really smoothly in 2020 and that Florida, which we know is kind of a zany place every election is anything but a smoothly running state when it comes to holding elections.
15:17 BF – Yeah, it’s interesting because Ron DeSantis hasn’t actually comment about these cases in particular. About a lot of county and the alleged voter fraud that had happened there but he has been boasting that he tweeted that Florida had helped the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country. But he’s also been implementing quite a few. Two voting law changes and actually one of them was he signed a bill that established the office of Election Crimes and Security and they’ve only just recently hired the director. So I think it will be really interesting to see what they actually do in that office.
15:56 AW – So give us an idea of the total felony disenfranchisement rates and around the country maybe and any trends that you were able to see?
16:05 BF – Yeah. So according to the Sentencing Project, felony disenfranchisement rates in 1980 in Florida were only 2.6%, and by 2016 they were 10.4%. And the state of Florida accounts for more than 1/4 of the entire disenfranchised population in the United States.
16:31 AW – So that increased almost five times over a 25 year period. Sorry, over a 35 year period, that’s pretty stunning and that must have been quite intentional, so why don’t you? What path forward do people have in Florida who have been convicted of a felony and want to be able to vote? And also maybe you can kind of tell us what is in store for people like Kelvin Bolton, who is sitting in jail and what their legal cases look like?
17:10 BF – For so for the 10 people who are being charged, four of them already pleaded guilty, four of them have said that they want to go to trial and two are still facing arraignment. So I think it will be really interesting to see what comes out of those trials. At least one of them I know is is going to move forward in November. I can’t speak to it more than that. I think it just it’s it’ll be interesting to see sort of how how things play out locally.
17:41 AW – So, outside of Alachua county, what prospects do people in Florida who have been convicted of a felony but are no longer incarcerated? What prospects do they have to vote moving forward? This the new reality that they’re going to have to just contact 67 counties before they possibly commit voter fraud, or is there going to be something that actually makes it easier for them to vote, Bianca?
18:10 BF – So for some felony convictions, you can actually ask a judge to reduce or eliminate the fines and fees, but that depends. Your eligibility for that depends on the specific conviction. The Florida Department of State does have a program also, which where they will offer you an advisory opinion if you do want to vote and and you’re not sure what fines and fees you owe. So there are also some local jurisdictions, including the 8th Judicial Circuit of Florida, which is where the prosecutor who is charged who is pursuing these cases, they will also offer. This sort of advisory opinion and then there have also been some fund raising efforts to help people pay off legal financial obligations if they need to help. And the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has been leading that effort, and I think it’s still very interested in meeting with individuals who need that sort of help.
19:04 AW – Bianca Fortis, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
19:07 BF – Thank you for having me.
19:59 (Music Break)
20:06 AW – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Hattie Carwell. She is a health physicist and the co-founder of the Museum of African American Technology. Hattie, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
20:17 HC – Thank you, it’s good to be here.
20:20 AW – So what is a health physicist?
20:22 HC – A health physicist is a physicist that primarily focuses on radiation safety and protection. Protection involves assuring that facilities that generate electrical radiation are safe. There’s no leakage to the environment and people working around equipment are not over exposed to radiation. There are programs in place following regulations set up by the state and federal government to ensure that the environment and people are safe.
21:07 AW – And what is the Museum of African American Technology? And maybe kind of tell us the mission of the organization?
21:15 HC – Well, the Museum of African American Technology Science Village is actually an archive of the achievements of African Americans in science and engineering. Also, it presents seminars, exhibitions and special programs particularly targeted for students anywhere from age 6 till 8.
21:50 AW – And when was it founded and maybe kind of give us an idea of the growth and vision for where it’s going?
21:58 HC – The museum was actually founded in 2000, the year 2000, as an outgrowth of an exhibition that the Northern California. Council of Black professional engineers UM sponsors. The exhibition was on George Washington Carver and it was held at Jack London Square. And as a result of the visitors to that exhibition, one of the founders of the Northern California Council of Black Professional Engineers. Indicated that he really enjoyed the exhibition and stated wouldn’t it be great if we could have this type of exhibition on an ongoing basis? I reminded him that for some years the engineers had planned a new museum but had never gotten around to doing it. So he indicated that he would give some startup money. And as a result, the museum came into existence in July 2000.
23:15 AW – So you moved out to the Bay Area in 73 or 4?
23:19 HC – The fall of 73. I left the Bay Area, however, in 1980. I wanted to come take a period of time to work for the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Commission, and there I worked as a nuclear safeguards inspector and later became a group leader with that organization. I was assigned on facilities in Europe, so I went to various facilities throughout Europe that had signed the nonproliferation treaty. Which basically was a promise they would use radiation for peaceful purposes and not for clandestine purposes.
24:16 AW – And then you return to the Bay Area.
24:19 HC – I returned to the Bay Area after five years of being in Vienna, Austria, with the IAEA.
24:27 AW – This is Alex Wise on sea change radio and I’m speaking to health physicist and the co-founder of the Museum of African American Technology, Hattie Carwell. So what kind of differences did you sense in terms of reactions to you, if you can kind of contrast Austria in the 80s versus Oakland in the 70s?
24:48 HC – I would say being in Austria for those five years was probably the best time for me of my career here and I say that because one, I was there representing the United States. They had great respect for the United States. I was protected because I carried an American passport and a lazy passee or let go. For the IEA, meaning I was probably the safest in my lifetime and the most respected in my lifetime under those circumstances.
25:36 AW – After a career involved in the nuclear industry to see reactors around the country being put out of Commission, how do you feel about the future of nuclear energy and globally at this point?
25:51 HC – Well, I’ve always been a supporter of nuclear energy as part as being part of the mix of energy options in Europe. While I was there, France basically passed an initiative that more than 25% of their energy would be generated by come from nuclear, and I find the contrast interesting. The US is supposed to be progressive, but they were lagging behind in terms of making such bold decisions. In fact, Nuclear has had a mixed reception even to today and I would say if anything, be it significant or not negative happened in nuclear, it would just put the last nail in the coffin.
26:50 AW – Yes, I mean, Chernobyl and Fukushima happened decades apart, and yet they loom as a spectre over the industry as a whole, don’t they?
26:58 HC – Most definitely.
26:59 AW – And Three Mile island.
27:01 HC – Yes, I would just say the biggest problem I’s remaining problem in nuclear industry is management of the waste. The US to this date really does not have a solid plan to manage and control the waste that’s generated.
27:21 AW – Just sending it all to Nevada is not a great plan, huh?
27:24 HC – Well, the better plan would be how to reduce the waste, how to avoid the waste when you’re trying to preserve and basically babysit the waste for thousands of years. That’s a little difficult given political climates and the wide range of things that can happen even at a remote waste handling site.
27:57 AW – Hattie Carwell, thank you so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:00 HC – Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.
28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Traffic, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.