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Giving the formerly incarcerated the vote – and hope

‘I really don’t believe there is a better evangelist for democracy than someone who lost their right to vote and got it back.’

Neil Volz’s story is one of redemption — at least it started out that way: “I wrestled with my pain and found my passion,” he says.

In his 20s, Volz became the chief of staff for Republican Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, and later, staff director for the House Administration Committee during the Bush-Gore election. With a lot of responsibility at an early age, he admits to not handling it well: “I became greedy and power-hungry and crossed lines I shouldn’t have crossed.”

Neil Volz knows what it feels like to lose the right to vote, then gain it back, and it drives his advocacy on behalf of formerly incarcerated people to regain access to the polls.

That line was a national lobbying scandal that ended with a felony conviction. Volz became exactly the kind of symbol of corruption he railed against when he first got to Washington, D.C.

Volz moved to Florida for a fresh start and began volunteering at and eventually running a shelter for unhoused veterans, engaging in that work for a decade: “But if you had held a gun to my head at that exact moment, [I] would have said that I want to look good in front of the judge that was sentencing me.”

But he was in that world, helping people with their resumes and seeing firsthand what it is like for them to get jobs, get on their feet, move forward, and build community.

“It changed me,” Volz says. “I realized giving people grace as human beings and to see each other as human beings is a really important part of this movement. I really don’t believe there is a better evangelist for democracy than someone who lost their right to vote and got it back.”

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In 2015, Volz began organizing for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s campaign to pass Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions after they complete terms of their sentencing. Exceptions include people convicted of murder and sexual offenses. The Amendment passed in 2018 via ballot initiative winning roughly 65% of the vote, but Volz’s work with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, where he is deputy director, isn’t over.

”We communicate around the real lives of people,” he says. “We lift up local stories of people who are engaging in democracy or working to be empowered within their community. The history of felony disenfranchisement goes back 150 years, after the Civil War. The story is big enough that anyone can see theirs in the bigger story.”


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