Former felons can begin registering to vote in Florida

By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON, Associated Press, Madeleine Wright - Reporter

MIAMI - The right to vote was restored for most Florida felons as of Tuesday, increasing the pool of eligible voters by as many as 1.4 million people in a battleground state infamous for its narrow margins in key elections.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition planned to get people together over breakfast before registering online or going to their local election supervisors' offices to fill out the forms.

"We are encouraging our members to celebrate," said organization's president, Desmond Meade. "Our members are going into the supervisor of elections with their loved ones. And that is very key- with their loved ones- because we really want to highlight that concept of love."

Outside the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, advocates for ex-cons celebrated the historic milestone Tuesday, while also protesting the lack of prison reform.

Michael Marion told Local 10 News he spent four years in prison for cocaine possession.

On Tuesday, he waited an hour and a half so he could be the first ex-con to register to vote in Fort Lauderdale.

"After a long wait, we finally have the restoration of civil rights for voters, felons, and I am a felon," he said. 

Similarly, Yraida Guanipa vowed to be the first person in line at an office in Miami-Dade County.

"Now it's a day to celebrate democracy," Guanipa said. 

Marion and Guanipa are among approximately 1 million ex-cons who are now able to register to vote in Florida following the passage of Amendment 4.

The law does not include felons convicted of murder and felony sex offenses.

"Going back in Florida's history, there is a documentary record saying that legislators felt that because black people are more often convicted that they simply did not want them to vote," said Steven Wetstein, a Campaign for Prison Reform member. 

Advocates for convicted felons celebrated the new law taking effect, but are demanding better treatment for those still serving their sentence.

"There isn't enough health care. Mental health care is terrible," Wetstein said. 

Even though Marion has turned in his voter registration form, he's still uncertain.

The clerk told him his paperwork would be sent to Tallahassee and, once he's approved, he'll get his voter registration card in three to four weeks.

But he's worried he may not get approved because of what some say is the law's lack of specifics.

"I'm a little apprehensive because I don't know what the governor is doing about implementing it," Marion said. "I just hope it rolls well and things move swiftly."

Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters last November approved Amendment 4, which was crafted so that it would take effect automatically, without further action needed by lawmakers. It applies to all felons who have done their time and completed the terms of their probation and parole, with the exception of people convicted of murder or sex offenses.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida says people don't need to present proof that they completed their sentence; they can simply fill out the existing application, signing under oath that their voting rights have been restored.

Civil rights groups have maintained the measure is self-executing, taking effect automatically on Tuesday, but just to be sure, they warned that they are ready to go to court if there are any delays.

Some offices posted notices at the offices and websites saying they will accept the existing registration application.

Until the amendment passed, Florida's constitution automatically barred felons from being able to vote after leaving prison. The state's clemency process allows the governor and three elected Cabinet members to restore voting rights, although the governor can unilaterally veto any request. The process has changed over the years.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press/WPLG