On Jan. 8, at the age of 41, Demetrius Jifunza registered to vote for the first time in his life.
Convicted of armed robbery at age 18, Jifunza spent more than three years in prison. After his release, he discovered that he—and almost all other Floridians with a felony conviction—were prohibited from voting, a policy relic from Jim Crow days. Jifunza resolved to change that. Two years ago, he founded the Sarasota chapter of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the statewide organization behind Amendment 4, a measure created to restore voting rights to most felons after they have completed their sentence.
Composed and soft-spoken, Jifunza became one of the faces of the movement. He appeared on the podcast Pod Save America and in a video published by The New York Times, and was interviewed on HBO and PBS, appealing to listeners’ sense of reason and fairness. Many ex-felons “have completely turned their lives around—or have discovered their lives,” he told a PBS interviewer. Instead of barring those people’s productive re-entry to society, he argued, we should encourage their sense of citizenship and social responsibility. Florida voters agreed, approving Amendment 4 by a 65 percent majority in November.
Married, with three young children and a career as a paralegal, Jifunza also serves as pastor of a church in Arcadia and on the board of CAN Community Health, and he’s pursuing a degree in mental health counseling. He says he’s happy Amendment 4 passed, but the fight isn’t over. Some 1.6 million Floridians won the right to vote with the passage of Amendment 4; now the Rights Restoration Coalition and other groups are working to reach those people to get them registered. Jifunza also points out those convicted of crimes can be barred from serving on juries and running for certain offices.
There’s plenty of work left, and Jifunza is committed to the task. For years, Jifunza says, he felt defined by his criminal background. He’s done with that. “I’m creating myself,” he says. “The sky’s the limit.”