On most days from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Mary Grimes can be found pacing along a crowded street in Orlando, Fla., with clipboards in both hands. “Can I have five minutes of your time?” the 58-year-old says to a parade of passers-by. Those who are in a rush, she quickly wishes well; the others, Grimes directs to a blue and yellow form, reciting her spiel and soliciting a signature from each. For several months, she has made her living this way. She transforms public parking lots, city parks and sidewalks into a home office from which she urges registered voters to endorse proposed constitutional amendments.
But for her, this is more than a way to pay rent.
“This is what I’m really praying for,” she says pointing to a stack of yellow petitions inside her bag one afternoon outside Orlando’s downtown public library.
Thousands of petitions like these are circulating across Florida in an unprecedented grass-roots campaign to restore voting rights to the state’s more than 1.6 million felons who have completed their sentences. This includes Grimes. At 17, she was sent to prison for a burglary. Although she has served her time, Florida law has barred her from participating in municipal and presidential elections for the past 41 years.
According to The Sentencing Project, a voting rights advocacy group, disenfranchisement laws have kept 6.1 million Americans from voting, and Florida is home to the largest concentration of them: 1.68 million, or 27 percent.