Category: Alumni

Title: Advocating for Voting Rights in Florida for People with Past Felony Convictions

Date Published: February 20, 2020

McCourt Alum Helps Restore Voting Rights to People with Past Criminal Convictions in Florida

For decades, civil rights advocates have been fighting to ensure that all Americans can exercise their right to vote. There are many different types of systemic barriers that inhibit people from voting, many of which date back to the Jim Crow era. One type of barrier is felony disenfranchisement or the restriction of voting rights due to a felony, and it prevents approximately 5.85 million Americans from voting, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Laws vary across the country, but in some states, if you have a felony on your record, you are not allowed to vote even after serving the terms of your sentence. This was the case in Florida until efforts from community members and organizations like the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, ACLU, Christian Coalition of America, Freedom Partners, and many more garnered public support for a 2018 ballot initiative known as the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative or Amendment 4.

Bolstering Community Action

In the summer of 2018, McCourt alum Marlon Marshall (MPM ‘19) joined the advocacy efforts applying his robust campaign and organizing expertise to help with the final push and ensure the efforts were successful. Marshall, a founding partner of 270 Strategies and former deputy director of public engagement in the Obama administration, worked with Jackie Lee, the campaign manager, and other community leaders to implement a communications strategy to increase awareness and education of the ballot initiative. They worked with community members to elevate the voices and stories of people with past convictions through online storytelling and in-person events.

The campaign organizers identified early on that if the ballot initiative became associated with one political party, it would likely fail. “At the end of the day, it’s not political,” Marshall explains. “It doesn’t matter what party you may identify with, [voting] is a fundamental right you should have as an American.” He describes working with the campaign manager and key stakeholders to focus public discussion on shared values and helping people get a second chance to re-engage in their community. The historic ballot initiative was successful and passed with support from 64.55% of Florida voters.

Marshall cites the power of community action and storytelling as a critical tool for bolstering support. “It’s important to highlight how this even got to be on the ballot,” says Marshall. “There was a grassroots movement in the state that had so many people working together around something that was so important to them.” Since the ballot initiative passed, Marshall noted there have been some challenges with policy implementation referencing the 2019 Florida House bill that would require people with former convictions to repay fines and restitution before being allowed to vote. It was recently ruled by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the law violates the constitution’s equal protection clause and that the state of Florida cannot prohibit people with past convictions from voting because they cannot afford to pay fees and fines.

From Fellow to Student

As the Amendment 4 advocacy campaign unfolded, Marshall began the McCourt Master of Policy Management program. However, his initial involvement at McCourt actually started as a 2017 GU Politics Fellow, an experience that prompted him to explore graduate school. While considering the MPM program, he was wrapping up his fellowship, working full-time, and had just learned he was going to be the father of twins. He recalls a conversation with McCourt Professor Lynn Ross in which she insightfully said, “the one thing that no one can take away from you is your knowledge.” Her insight helped him make the decision.

“I loved the program, and I would highly recommend it,” says Marshall. One of the biggest takeaways that he describes from his McCourt experience is how valuable it was to learn from not only faculty but from students with a variety of backgrounds that brought unique perspectives to classroom discussions. He highlights that the McCourt faculty, in addition to excellent teaching, facilitated an environment that supported and empowered students to share their experiences and stories with others.

When asked what advice he has for people considering a graduate degree at McCourt, he points to Professor Ross’s insight and says, “if there is any reason to do it, that’s the one.”