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Florida ex-felons reclaim their voting rights, ready to become ‘like every other American citizen’

In January 2019, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) hailed a new state law that was expected to restore voting rights to more than a million former felons. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/Reuters)

ORLANDO — Confetti, party horns and hugs marked voter registrations in county elections offices across Florida on Tuesday as ex-felons long denied the right to vote began applying to have that right restored.

It was an emotional day for many of the returned citizens, as they call themselves: people who have completed all the requirements of their sentences and are now eligible to vote because of an amendment to the state constitution that passed in November. Many brought spouses, children, friends and co-workers to witness the moment.

“I feel validated, I feel like it’s redemption. I know I now have a voice,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “It’s something I’ve wanted for so long. It’s almost overwhelming, the feeling.”

He fought back tears, then gave up and let them roll.

“Don’t start me crying,” responded his wife, Sheena, as she and their 15-year-old daughter helped with his application at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office. Their 17-year-old son shared the experience with his dad by also registering to vote.

Meade was showered with multicolored confetti as he walked out, voter registration held high.

“In the civil rights era, fathers would take their sons with them to register,” said Meade, 47, who was convicted on drug and firearms charges. “I’ve never been able to do that until today.”

Across the state, scores of individuals whose pasts had kept them from voting showed up at elections offices. The new constitutional amendment overturned an 1868 requirement that blocked automatic restoration of voting rights after a felony sentence was served — a hurdle that now remains in just three states. In Florida, only people with a record of murder or felony sex offenses still must seek special permission from the state clemency board.

“Thousands of people registered to vote today. It’s an overwhelming expansion of democracy, and we’re seeing it firsthand,” said Neil Volz, the coalition’s political director.

It’s unclear how many former felons will sign up in the coming weeks and months, if they will follow through and vote, and which party they will favor. Marc Meredith of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the voting habits of ex-felons, says there is little indication that this sweeping enfranchisement will significantly change Florida politics. Historically, few of these men and women turn out at the polls.

“They vote at substantially lower rates than the typical voter. So the political impact is muted,” he said.

For 35-year-old Brett DuVall, registering Tuesday in Orlando was an important symbolic step.

“I’m a constitutional conservative, and I registered as a Republican,” said DuVall, who served five years for armed burglary. “I like Donald Trump. But that’s not what matters. This isn’t a political party thing. It’s about becoming a full citizen again. Now I’m just like every other American citizen. I can vote.”

David Ayala, 45, shared that sentiment. He was arrested for drug offenses before he was old enough to vote and then served 21 years behind bars. He has spent recent months volunteering with Meade’s group and plans to stay involved with workshops to help his counterparts register and educate themselves on how to research issues and candidates.

Ayala, who is married to State Attorney Aramis Ayala, had one word as he emerged from the elections office with a copy of his registration in hand.

“Awesome,” he said.

Advocates still have a lot of work to do. Two blocks west of the county elections office, a group of men in the parking lot of Labor Finders waited for potential employers looking for day laborers. Courtnai Hargrette, 47, said he completed his felony sentence in 2006 and has missed voting.

“People have to have a voice. We’re all Americans,” he said. “We need to speak up. That way, we won’t get another Donald Trump.”

But Hargrette was unaware that he could now register to vote.

“I didn’t hear about that. That’s good news,” he said. “When does the elections office close today? I’m going to have to go by there.”

Across the state in Sarasota, Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient Alan Rhyelle said that as much as he was looking forward to registering, filling out the form at the elections office Tuesday morning made him feel even better than he expected.

“I am elated,” said Rhyelle, 72. He had been ineligible to vote for more than a decade. “I feel all bubbly inside. You never really miss something until it’s gone and you realize how precious it is. That’s how I feel about the right to vote.”

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Washington contributed to this report.

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