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Explained: How NBA stars are campaigning to restore ex-convicts’ voting rights

Up against a state legislature that makes it difficult for almost 1.5 million disenfranchised Floridians to register to vote in this swing state, More Than a Vote has helped re-enfranchise a population with donations to Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the chief voting rights organisation.

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai |
Updated: August 19, 2020 7:08:06 am
LeBron James is leading the campaign. (File)

LeBron James might be cocooned inside a Disney-themed bubble arena in Orlando as the National US Basketball Association (NBA) seeks to complete its season exclusively for the TV audience. But when he checked in to be locked away from the world for three months, basketball’s biggest name today had already helped put into place provisions that reached out to the most marginalised of Floridians: convicted felons who had completed their sentences but were still barred from voting in the November presidential elections, unless they paid outstanding fines and fees.

Superstar King James’s ‘More Than a Vote’ brought together black athletes and entertainers who raised $100,000 for such felons.

While Black Lives Matter is America’s most powerful slogan in the run-up to the elections, NBA stars including Udonis Haslem, Trae Young and Draymond Green and WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith joined James in More Than a Vote. Up against a state legislature that makes it difficult for almost 1.5 million disenfranchised Floridians to register to vote in this swing state, More Than a Vote has helped re-enfranchise a population with donations to Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the chief voting rights organisation.

Why is it happening in Florida?

ProCon.org says Florida has the most disenfranchised citizens in the US — about 10.43% of the state population (over 1.6 million individuals) and 23.3% of blacks — because of felony charges (bribery, perjury, larceny, etc). It used to be one of only four states to impose lifetime bans on sentenced felons. In November 2018, 65% of Floridians voted in favour of restoration of voting rights for ex-felons under Amendment 4 — except for those incarcerated for murder or sexual crimes — on completion of their sentences. However, Republicans brought in a restriction that made it mandatory for ex-felons to clear their fines before they were allowed to vote again. The move is being debated in courts — with a hearing on Wednesday, the same day as the primaries — and has been widely criticised for its exclusionary nature. “Your right to vote shouldn’t depend upon whether or not you can pay to exercise it,” Miami Heat forward and More Than a Vote member Udonis Haslem said in a statement.

How did More Than a Vote start?

The immediate trigger for James and others seemed to be the primary elections in Georgia, marked by long voting lines and voting machine malfunctions in black neighbourhoods, coupled with President Donald Trump’s refusal to allow votes-by-post at the height of the pandemic in the southern state in early June. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, who ran for the Democrat Vice Presidency candidature before Kamala Harris won it, had lost a narrow Governor’s election in 2018 and suspected rigging by her opponent. More Than a Vote has pledged to raise $100,000 to help pay the fines with over 1.4 million impacted by the law.

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Why does James’ involvement matter?

Besides being NBA’s most influential contemporary figure, James has 66 million followers on Instagram and 46 million on Twitter. He has launched other civil rights campaigns, including one to honour shooting victim Breonna Taylor. “I’m inspired by the likes of Muhammad Ali, I’m inspired by the Bill Russells and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, the Oscar Robertsons – those guys who stood when the times were even way worse than they are today. Hopefully, someday down the line, people will recognise me not only for the way I approached the game of basketball, but the way I approached life as an African-American man,” he told The New York Times. Most recently, he said the President’s eyeballs wouldn’t be missed after he declared he wouldn’t watch NBA.

While James insists that he and his peers will start with the initial donations for the ‘returning citizens’ (ex-felons) he has also spoken of a voting tutorial, where black voters will be educated on the polling process and the discrimination and voter suppression they are being subjected to.

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Why is Florida crucial?

Daniel Smith, professor at University of Florida, studied the impact on nearly 7.7 lakh who would be ineligible to vote because of the restrictions. Current Governor Ron DeSantis defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum in 2018 by fewer than 33,000 votes.

In 2016, Trump had won Florida 49% to Hillary Clinton’s 47.8%, when black numbers were low. Trump is desperate for Florida to deliver his re-election and the move to link voting rights to restitution, court fines and fees has been seen as a desperate ploy. The Floridian fight against the constitutional injury has been on for large part of the last decade, and according to a legal petition, “countless hours and millions of dollars” had been spent in convincing 5 million voters to vote in favour of Amendment 4 so everyone gets voting rights.

Who else has taken up this voting rights cause?

Veteran basketball player Michael Jordan announced on July 29 that he and his brand will pitch in with a $100 million commitment to help Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples and their Families Movement (FICPFM) to combat Black voter suppression. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) will receive $500,000 to help pay off fines and fees.

“One of the ways we change this country’s ingrained racism is by eliminating Black voter suppression. Our initial partners will directly impact the social and political power of Black people in our country. We know it will take time to create the change we want to see, but we’re working quickly to help make the Black Community’s voice be heard,” Jordan said in a press statement.

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