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  1. Opinion

After lawmakers meddled with Amendment 4, she couldn't vote. So a stranger offered to help

Tampa lawyer Susan Wilson (right) read about Erica Racz (left) after she couldn't afford to get her voting rights restored. She wanted to help. (Photos courtesy of Racz and Wilson)
Published Jul. 30

After a drug possession conviction nearly a decade ago, Erica Racz served her year in jail, finished her probation and put in hundreds of community service hours to chip away at thousands in fines and fees.

She has a job. She pays taxes. She's raising a daughter as a single mom.

And she wants to vote.

Here is what stands between the 31-year-old Fort Myers woman and the fully-engaged citizen she hopes to be: $880.

That, and Florida lawmakers who decided to interpret the will of the people just in time for the 2020 election.

•••

In the suburb of Lutz just outside Tampa — a few counties north of where Racz lives — a complete stranger named Susan Wilson read her story in a Washington Post column that ran in the Tampa Bay Times.

Wilson thought: This woman deserves to vote. Maybe I can do something about it.

Just last November, Floridians voted overwhelmingly for the fundamental fairness contained in Amendment 4, which automatically restored voting rights to felons who completed their sentences including parole and probation, except for those convicted of murder or sex crimes.

Racz first voted when she was 18. She recounted in that newspaper column how her hands were shaking when she registered again in January. "Until that moment," she wrote, "I hadn't realized how much my vote meant to me."

Not so fast. In Tallahassee, Republican lawmakers got busy clarifying an amendment a lot of people didn't think needed clarifying. They decided a felon's sentence wasn't officially done until every penny of their fines and fees were paid, too.

But here is a truth: Whether it's a few hundred dollars or millions, many people who have been in the court system simply don't have the money to pay. So that legislative clarification effectively blocked the just-opened path to voting for thousands of people. They can't vote because they can't afford it.

Racz, who works to make ends meet and is paying off student loans, could not afford her final $880. With a stroke of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' pen last month, her eligibility to vote anytime soon evaporated.

"I've served my time and have done everything I can to turn my life around," Racz wrote. And also: "It's wrong to make money a barrier to our becoming full citizens."

In Lutz, Wilson thought: I can pay that.

A 61-year-old lawyer who specializes in insurance defense, Wilson lives comfortably — though it wasn't always so. She was one of seven children, with a father who struggled with alcohol and a mother she calls a saint. She remembered a time when there wasn't always a lot to eat.

She once considered herself a conservative Republican, but the current political climate turned her into a no-party-affiliation voter. For the record, she doesn't think either of the two major parties represents mainstream America at the moment.

Wilson contacted the newspaper, and then she and Racz exchanged rather warm emails. But with an ending you might not have expected.

First, though: Don't you think there's something essentially, I don't know, just American in people who want to help because they see a wrong and because they can?

Just last week, after a Pennsylvania school district sent out stunning letters warning parents their children could end up in foster care if overdue lunch bills weren't paid, strangers offered to make good on those bills. Here at home, people stepped up to help when damages to a 77-year-old Clearwater woman's home from an 11-foot-alligator that busted in weren't covered by insurance.

In an email, Racz told Wilson she was amazed there were still people like her in the world, that "a complete stranger has reached out with an open heart." She said it brought her to tears. She couldn't appreciate the offer more.

But she didn't say yes.

"I do not want Florida to get anything out of people like you and I because they are scared of what new and returning voters may do," she wrote to Wilson. As Racz told me this week: "I want to right my own wrongs."

She worried she would offend this woman who made this generous gesture. But Wilson was impressed at how Racz had worked to improve her life. "Also, there are more good people out there than you think," she wrote.

On this they agreed: One day, Racz needs to vote again.

Given her determination — and also good people in the world who plainly see we're supposed to be about helping and not hindering our fellow Americans — here's hoping it happens.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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