Florida Politics

‘I became somebody’: Former felons register to vote in Florida through Amendment 4

From left: Lorenzo Latson Sr., Clarence Office Jr. and Jerry Armstrong register to vote on Tuesday at the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Office during the first official day former felons could register in Florida following the passage of Amendment 4.
From left: Lorenzo Latson Sr., Clarence Office Jr. and Jerry Armstrong register to vote on Tuesday at the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Office during the first official day former felons could register in Florida following the passage of Amendment 4. WLRN

For the past 25 years, Anthony Bushell has served as his community’s unofficial Election Day chauffeur, transporting the elderly and homeless to and from polling places for local, statewide and federal races.

And every election, while the voters Bushell ferried cast their ballots, his criminal record has kept him on the political sidelines. His last vote came in the 1992 presidential election for Bill Clinton, who was then the governor of Arkansas.

On Tuesday, Bushell walked out of the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Office a newly registered voter, one of several formerly incarcerated Floridians to register to vote after the passage of constitutional Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for an estimated 1.2 million felons — as many as 400,000 of those in South Florida, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.

“I usually do my part anyway and I transport individuals to the polls whenever I can,” Bushell, 52, said outside the county’s elections office in Doral. “Not being able to do it myself, that’s like a downfall for me. So now that I’m able to do it, now it’s an uplift.”

The product of a years-long petitioning process by voting rights groups, the amendment officially took effect Tuesday after passing in November with more than 64 percent of the nearly 8 million votes cast. Prior to the amendment going into effect, convicted felons were required to seek the restoration of their rights from the state’s clemency board, which has a backlog of about 10,000 cases.

The amendment mandates that the state automatically restore the voting rights for felons who have fulfilled all terms of their sentence, along with any probation or parole. Individuals convicted of murder or a “felony sexual offense” are not eligible under the amendment.

Bushell, who said he was convicted after a drug-possession charge in 1993, registered as a Democrat and said he looks forward to participating in any election for which he is eligible to cast a ballot.

Anthony Bushell, a former felon, registered to vote on Tuesday in Miami-Dade County following the official implementation of Amendment 4. Martin Vassolo Miami Herald

“It’s very important because you have a voice that you have to make heard and the only way you can do that is through your elections,” he said. “Once someone pays their debt to society then this dark cloud is basically held over their heads... At least now it doesn’t go against your voting record.”

Although uncertainty remains over the amendment’s implementation and the potential for the Republican-controlled Legislature to take a restrictive view of the new measure, elections offices across Florida accepted new voter registrations Tuesday.

No issues with voter registrations were reported at the elections offices in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and newly registered voters on Tuesday said they were happy to simply get their name on the voter rolls.

While there is no estimate available for how many former felons registered to vote in South Florida on Tuesday, Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said a crowd of people were waiting outside the doors of her elections headquarters before it opened.

“We have seen an influx,” she said, calling Tuesday “historic.”

During a press conference outside Bucher’s offices, felons told their stories and expressed gratitude.

“When you get put in jail, you’re nobody, and when you get out of jail, you’re treated like nobody,” one speaker told the crowd, Bucher recalled. “Today I became somebody.”

After registering for the first time on Tuesday in Miami-Dade County, Army veteran Lorenzo Latson Sr. said he wanted to become more involved in local politics.

“I want my vote to be counted. I want to be a respectable person in the community,” he said. “With my voting rights back, I should be able to voice my opinion.”

He stopped by the Doral headquarters with his friend and fellow Army veteran Clarence Office Jr., who carried with him his voter registration card from 2012. Both registered as independents.

Office Jr., who works with the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but was barred from voting in 2012 following a subsequent arrest and conviction on a drug charge.

“I felt like it was an injustice not to be able to vote,” he said. “I wasn’t asking to go to the gun shop to buy AK’s or rifles, just a simple thing of being able to vote.”

“I feel like it’s a step for everyone who’s been disenfranchised,” he added.

While the state’s Division of Elections has suspended its practice of checking new voters against its felony database, newly registered voters may still be deemed ineligible if they have not completed all terms of their sentence by the time they register.

Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who spearheaded the Amendment 4 push, registered to vote at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office. Referring to himself and his peers as “returning citizens,” Meade described a scene of overwhelming emotion and elation.

“There were a lot of tears of joy that were shed. Some of the (supervisors of elections) were crying,” Meade said. “It was just a very emotional day. We were celebrating the expansion of democracy.”

desmond meade.jpg
Desmond Meade is an advocate for restoring ex-felons’ voting rights in Florida and other states. Erika Goldring Getty Images

While Meade and his allies have argued the amendment is self-executing, newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday that the Legislature must pass legislation to guide the Division of Elections as it determines the eligibility of new voters under Amendment 4.

Meade said his organization has a team of attorneys prepared to “spring into action” if the amendment is not implemented as intended. The amendment’s language was approved by the Florida Supreme Court before being placed before voters.

“The language that is now governing the right that I was just granted, that law was thoroughly reviewed by every member of the Florida Supreme Court,” he said. “We fully expect every elected official and every public official to not only uphold the will of the people but the law of the land.”