For a few, the right to vote is restored -- but in time for Nov. 8?
It took Gilberto Hernandez three decades to regain the right to vote. But he did it.
The 64-year-old Miami man was one of the lucky ones Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members, meeting as the Board of Clemency, considered requests from four dozen people to restore their civil rights, just a few weeks before what may be the most important election of their lives.
Hernandez, walking with a cane and joined by his wife Mercedes, pleaded for the right to be a full-fledged American citizen again while he still has the chance.
"For 33 years, I've been waiting for this day, to try to bring back my civil rights," Hernandez told the four state officials. "I felt that I was less than an American because my rights were all taken away. And I felt very bad."
Hernandez was found guilty of dealing in stolen merchandise involving an office supply business he ran in the 1980s. He served less than two years in prison. After his release, he got a master's degree in political science at FIU. An investigation by the Florida Commission on Offender Review recommended that his rights be restored.
Florida is one of three states that permanently strips convicted felons of their civil rights, including the right to vote, following a felony conviction. They must then wait five years before they can formally petition the state for restoration of those rights, a process that typically takes years -- sometimes decades.
Hernandez expressed regret, and he apologized. But before the vote, there was one last-minute glitch. Scott wanted to know if Hernandez made full restitution. Hernandez insisted he did with a series of money orders, but the record was unclear. "This case is over 30 years old," a staff member told the governor, noting that Hernandez successfully completed probation and that the victim in the case is long dead.
A naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Cuba, Hernandez said his next priority is to register at the Miami-Dade elections office so he can cast his vote in November. He can't do that until the state Commission on Offender Review provides him with a document proving that his civil rights have been restored, and he has until Oct. 11 to register.
"I'm going to run to register to vote," he said.
His 65th birthday is election day, Nov. 8.
Right before the vote there was yet another glitch, as records showed Hernandez continued to vote after his conviction that stripped him of the voting rights. He didn't deny it, saying he was never told that his rights had been revoked.
"For Gilbert, voting is like eating," his wife testified. "He loves being part of the American system."
For the rest of the civil rights petitioners, it was a mixed bag. Some regained their rights and some didn't. Scott took a number of other cases under advisement, putting them in legal limbo, and still others were postponed to a meeting in December, too late for them to vote in 2016.
"I think people should vote. The way things are right now, you should vote," Hernandez said afterward as he and his wife headed to the Tallahassee airport to fly back to Miami.
Asked how he'll vote, Hernandez laughed for the first time all day. The answer: Donald Trump. "Aha," Hernandez said. "I don't like him. But I have to vote for him because the other side is worse."