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‘A joyous day’ ahead as 1.4 million Florida ex-felons have voting rights restored

By Lori Rozsa (Washington Post)

SARASOTA — One of the largest enfranchisements of U.S. citizens in the past century begins Tuesday in Florida, and many of the more than 1.4 million ex-felons set to regain their voting rights here are treating the moment as a celebration.

In Tampa, one group is renting buses to register en masse at the county elections office. Others will be live-streaming on Facebook as they march in. Demetrius Jifunza, convicted as a teen of armed robbery, is now a father and pastor who wants to make his daughters proud.

“It’ll be a joyous day,” Jifunza said of the trip to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections office, a journey made possible when voters in November overturned Florida’s 1868 ban blocking residents with felony convictions from automatically having their voting rights restored once they served their sentences.

In the run-up to Tuesday, the organizations and volunteers who worked for the past decade to pass the amendment to the state constitution have been ramping up their efforts to encourage ex-felons to quickly follow through. There’s a toll-free number, 877-MY-VOTE-0, and a website with tips.

“We’re kicking this into a higher gear now,” said Neil Volz, political director of the bipartisan Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Pro-bono attorneys will be on call in case problems crop up in the coming weeks.

At a strategy meeting in Sarasota in December, a small group of returning citizens — the term many people prefer over ex-felon — hashed out ideas on getting people motivated. It was one of more than a dozen such meetings across the state held by coalition members, which were made more urgent after some lawmakers suggested that Amendment 4 should not take effect until the legislature can review it.

Supporters insist the legislature does not need to do a thing.

“The amendment was written to be self-executing. It goes into effect on Jan. 8, and we can register that day,” Volz stressed. He will be in line himself in Lee County, a dozen years after he pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in Washington. “My supervisor of elections assured me that my registration form will be accepted.”

The Sarasota meeting was held on the same day that Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis (R) backed a delay so that lawmakers could consider how ex-felons’ registration should be implemented. To many, the timing is suspect: The legislature does not convene until March, but municipal elections in Florida begin in February. All Democratic candidates running for statewide office in November endorsed the amendment. Republican candidates largely did not, including DeSantis and Gov. Rick Scott (R), who beat incumbent Bill Nelson (D) in the U.S. Senate race.

At the polls, the measure was approved by nearly two-thirds of voters. “We view this as a delay tactic,” Volz said of DeSantis’s comment.

But the amendment may prove an unexpected political boon for the state’s GOP. Many Republicans opposed granting voting rights to ex-felons because they assumed most would register as Democrats. It’s a reasonable assumption because more than 21 percent of African Americans in Florida can’t vote given felony convictions, and blacks are a much stronger presence in the Democratic Party here. (They represent 29 percent of registered Democrats, vs. only 1 percent of registered Republicans.)

Still, if Democrats expect to see an immediate windfall of new party voters, they should take a closer look.

Many ex-felons involved in the movement to restore voting rights did not want to reveal their political preferences while they were pushing Amendment 4, but they are much more relaxed about discussing those now. A lot are conservatives who say they will register as Republicans. Even more are planning to register as NPA — No Party Affiliation.

Lance Wissinger, 39, of Fort Myers, wants to be able to vote for President Trump in 2020. “I’m a huge Donald Trump fan,” he boasted after the meeting in Sarasota.

Wissinger, who runs a drone operations business, was found guilty of a felony in a DUI accident that killed his best friend. He served his time, paid his fines and now wants to be treated like any other citizen.

“My business has contracts with the city, but I can’t vote for the City Council members,” he said.

Adam Knight also favors Trump — and most Republicans — though he may register as an independent. The 32-year-old, who manages a conference center in LaBelle in Hendry County, was convicted of drug charges in Washington state when he was a teenager. He served his time there, moved to Florida and found out he could not vote unless he went through a lengthy process involving the state’s clemency board. Had he stayed in Washington, his voting rights would have been restored automatically after he completed his sentence.

Knight wants to see changes in the criminal justice system so that defendants will be treated more fairly. He says politicians of both parties should be aware that newly registered voters like him will be watching them carefully.

“We’ll be paying attention to these issues,” he said. “Judges, state attorneys — if they’re handing out harsh sentences for drug offenders, they’re going to have to change some of the stuff they do.”

And then there’s Allan Rhyelle, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient who lost his right to vote in 2008 after being sentenced to probation and community service for a felony charge of cultivating marijuana.

A video produced by the Florida ACLU in support of Amendment 4 featured Rhyelle, 72, talking about how “veterans have defended the right to vote around the world. We need to defend it in Florida also.” Now that the measure has passed, he wants vets who have been through the criminal justice system to register — and politicians to take note of them as a new voting bloc.

Tuesday morning, his wife will go with him to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections office. He intends to sign up as an independent. “I’ve become so embittered with the whole system and the way they all treat veterans,” he said. “But I’ll be there registering. I’m very excited to get to vote again.”

Yet one ex-felon who campaigned for Amendment 4 and would love to cast a ballot as a Democrat will not be registering.

Karen Leicht, 61, is a senior paralegal in Miami who was released from prison in 2013 after serving 28 months for insurance fraud. A lifelong Republican from a Republican family, her political views changed when she was behind bars.

“I saw what most of those women were in for,” she recounted from her office. “Minor drug offenses, small things they had done to try and feed their kids or keep their family together. And when they get out, they’re not full citizens. . . . We all deserve a second chance. And I saw the Republican machine try to destroy the voting rights of these people. It made my stomach churn.”

Until Leicht completes every part of her sentence, however, she is still blocked from registering. The amendment requires that all fines first be paid, and Leicht’s conviction came with a $52 million restitution order, an amount far beyond her means. Her only hope is to someday get that dismissed; until then, she’s not going to risk anything. And she understands why other ex-felons, even if they have satisfied all aspects of their sentences, might hesitate to register.

The state’s elections website still has not been updated to reflect Florida’s new reality, and Leicht fears the old language could scare some people off. Amendment 4 covers ex-felons except for those convicted of murder and sex offenses.

“Here’s the thing about returned citizens,” she said. “A lot of them are gun-shy. They don’t want to do anything that could cause any kind of issue.”

Outgoing Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in December that the measure should not take effect until lawmakers could “provide guidance.” But incoming elections chief Michael Ertel, a DeSantis appointee, told the Orlando Sentinel just days ago that he does not see why voter registration for ex-felons who have finished their sentences can’t begin Tuesday.

Longtime civil rights leader Howard Simon agrees and notes that eligible individuals do not even have to go to an office to do it. He recommends registering online, right after the law kicks in at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday and before anybody can try to stop sign-ups.

“That’s the easiest way to do it,” said Simon, who helped write the amendment and recently retired after 21 years leading the Florida ACLU. “No politician should be involved at all.”

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