Sunshine State Celebration: Formerly Incarcerated FL Citizens Begin Voter Registration After Amendment 4

[Image via harvardlawreview]

Yesterday, in county election offices across Florida, formerly incarcerated citizens whose voting rights were restored by voters last November after passage of Amendment 4 began registering to vote. It was a day of celebration across the Sunshine State as many election officials rolled out the red carpet for the newly-minted voters. The Tallahassee Democrat has one story from the state capital:

Every election season for the past several years, Delmus Calloway accompanied his wife to the polls. The former felon and Leon County resident would wait outside.

“It’s exciting because I go with her every time, but my voice is not heard,” Calloway said. “Now, we’ll come here together — and both of our voices will be heard.”

Calloway joined about 1.5 million formerly convicted felons across Florida who could finally register to vote Tuesday. 

Throughout the day, activists and ex-felons filed into the Supervisor of Elections Office on Apalachee Parkway, adorned with red, white and blue balloons. By 4:50 p.m., the center saw 104 former felons register to vote. Several lingered throughout the day, waiting for friends to arrive to register too, and chatting over refreshments.

Registrants received “future voter” stickers, and extra staff tended to a corner where those who had lost the right to vote because of criminal convictions could check their court records.

Calloway beamed and posed for a photo with a poll worker. He was registering to vote for the first time since 2000, he estimated.

In a historic move, 64.5 percent of Floridians who voted last November checked ‘yes’ to the box by Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to felons who’d served their terms, including probation or parole, and are not convicted of homicide or felony sex offenses. 

There was a tinge of defiance in the celebrations as local officials went ahead with registrations despite the concerns of the state’s new Governor:

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley and some of his counterparts across the state proceeded with felon registration over the objections of newly sworn-in Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said he wanted the Legislature to put the rules in place before they could register. Until now, felons had to seek clemency from the governor and Cabinet.

The new voters described why voting rights were important to them – and to their community:

Calloway served his six years in state prison on drug possession charges. He’s been out since 2007.

The 46-year-old is now director of Public Works for the city of Gretna in Gadsden County and is taking classes at Tallahassee Community College toward a degree in public administration.

Before, he felt like a voiceless taxpayer.

“It makes you feel like you’re not a citizen — you’re no one. You’re nobody,” he said. “This right here makes me feel like I am a part of this society. Today is a great day for me. It’s an honor.”

Oceo Harris shared that feeling.

Harris, 59, grew up in Tallahassee. His mother was an alcoholic, and he dropped out of school in the 10th grade and ventured down a path of addiction himself. He was convicted on felony drug charges and served 10 years in federal prison.

Since his release, he earned a social work degree from Florida A&M, a master’s in social work at Florida State and is working on attaining his social worker license.

An African American, Harris spoke about the importance of the black vote.

“A lot of people of color never saw value in their vote,” he said. “Being more informed and educated, I know the value of my vote.”

The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based incarceration research center, reported a 21 percent African American disenfranchisement rate in Florida. Nationally, one in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, four times greater than that of non-African Americans, according to the group.

Harris registered to vote Tuesday for the first time.

“It’s a moral responsibility to the community at large,” Harris said.

Now, he’s a part of it.

I was struck by the widespread joy across the state yesterday as these new voters came to register (if you want to see more of these stories, check out electionline.org’s Daily News page); you could see how much election officials enjoy helping their neighbors vote and how much they, too, appreciated the significance of the day. Kudos to everyone who made it happen – and congratulations to all those new Florida voters. This story is only going to continue … stay tuned!

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