On Tuesday, January 8, we registered 105 Florida felons who had served their sentences to vote at the Leon County Supervisor of Elections office in Tallahassee.
It was a day when these felons became returning citizens. Damn, it felt good!
Our historic day was due to Florida Constitutional Amendment 4, which was approved by 64 percent of voters in November. It provides automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have served their sentences, including probation and parole. It doesn’t apply to anyone convicted of sex crimes or murder.
Several volunteers and I hosted a steady stream all day of mostly middle-aged men to become voters and exercise the most fundamental right for any citizen – the ability to choose who will represent them in public office. Some brought their spouses and young children.
Most memorable for me was an 89-year-old man, driven there by his wife. He’s now registered and able to vote for the first time. The two of them were quiet and dignified while he filled out the application form, aided by the supervisor’s welcoming staff. The couple left happy and eager to vote.
We were there as part of an ad-hoc volunteer group we named the Big Bend Voting Rights Project. We’ve been meeting weekly for the past two months to plan this first-day turnout.
Our volunteers were there all day, greeting those who walked in the door, providing refreshments and directing people to the registration table or, if needed, to our volunteer lawyers who were ready to search online databases for anyone’s legal status
Instrumental in our strong turnout was Rev. Greg James, pastor of Tallahassee’s Life Church International Center and one of the state’s most prominent advocates for voting rights for felons. James served time in federal prison for cocaine running in the mid-1990s and was part of the first group that registered.
The day before, James had organized an outdoor luncheon with fried catfish at Leola’s Crab Shack that was attended by over 50 people. Owner Eric McKinnon, himself a felon who would also be gaining the right to vote, provided the lunches for free.
With help from local League of Women Voters members, we teamed with the local elections office to bring felons to register on the day Florida’s new Amendment 4 took effect – ending 150 years of our state’s racist lifetime ban on voting by anyone convicted of a felony.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley concluded that the amendment is self-executing and doesn’t require enabling legislation or regulation – a fact which was confirmed by a clarification from the Secretary of State’s office.
Just fill out the application correctly, hand it in, and expect to get a voter registration card in the mail in a few days.
Our group will decide our next steps soon, to expand outreach to felons who have served their sentences and prepare for the possibility of Republican interference.
After all, voter suppression has been one of their core competencies as they cling to power in Florida.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis – along with some other Republican legislators – has publicly mused about delaying registration until the Legislature can impose requirements.
But he should realize that messing with Amendment 4 is a political minefield, given its racist history. The lifetime ban was adopted in Florida’s 1868 Constitution as part of the broader effort by whites to subjugate newly-freed slaves.
For the next century and a half, successive state governments failed to rescind this notorious injustice.
In fact, former governor (now U.S. Senator) Rick Scott made a mockery of the clemency process, until now the only way to regain voting rights, during his eight-year rule.
Out of an estimated 1.4 million Floridians (and a quarter of all voting-age blacks) barred from voting, Scott and Florida Cabinet members granted clemency to only about 3,500 people in eight years.
That inaction drove citizens to place Amendment 4 on the 2018 ballot, which passed with 64 percent of the vote.
Our success on Jan. 8, the first day Amendment 4 went into effect, encourages us to redouble our campaign.
We’re especially eager to have an impact on the 2020 election here in Tallahassee.
We think the impact of having so many new voters on the rolls could be considerable, and lead to real change.