I recently took advantage of early voting and cast my ballot downtown at Hillsborough County Center. It was a very special and emotional day for me. You see, that was the first time in my life that I have ever voted.
You may ask yourself: Why has a citizen of 59 years never voted?
Well the answer is simple, and yet very Jim Crow-ish. The short answer: I was a convicted felon and just got lost in the confusion of getting my civil rights restored.
Many others like me won't vote on Tuesday because their rights have not been reinstated. In Florida, felons automatically get a lifetime sentence with each felony conviction — first they do the time they've been sentenced, then they start serving a lifetime sentence of being denied civil rights.
According to the Department of Corrections, approximately 24,863 persons were released from state prisons to Hillsborough County between 1999 and 2009. There's no way to tell how many of them have had their rights restored.
Without civil rights, you can't vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, or hold certain types of state occupational licenses. In some instances, a felon without rights restoration could be denied student loans and housing.
In many states, civil rights are restored on termination of your sentence. Other states, like Florida, have a clemency process. Here, it is a convoluted trek to reacquire your civil rights. The process is hampered by a clemency board, backlogs, staff shortages and limited funding for rights restoration.
I asked Mohammed Malik of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU of Florida about the issue. He pointed out a few facts:
• The backlog of those seeking rights restoration as of 2010 is around 87,000.
• The state is still processing cases from 2007.
• There are about 1.2 million persons living in Florida without restored rights.
Malik went on to say, "The 2007 clemency rule changes did not create an automatic rights restoration system. The current system is confusing, sluggish, and it wastes taxpayer dollars. We urge the governor and his Cabinet to reform this process by making it truly automatic and paperwork free."
Many speculate about why the process is so challenging in Florida, some arguing that this difficult and mind-boggling process was designed to prevent minorities from voting. Since minorities are disproportionately convicted as felons, they would have the most to gain from a smoother process. I believe that many of these voting bans have roots to the Jim Crow days in the years after the Civil War.
In Hillsborough County, Quinton Robinson, president of the nonprofit Re-Entry Co-Operative America, has aggressively worked with felons for years to help them regain civil rights and find employment. He also helps in educating the public about the rights restoration process. He, too, says that reforms supposedly intended to speed up the process and make restoration "automatic" have failed.
"Automatic rights restoration (in Florida) is a farce because, when Gov. Crist issued this mandate, the budget to this particular office was cut and causing a backlog," Robinson said.
Robinson regularly conducts neighborhood workshops to help people reacquire their rights. It was at one of his workshops that I learned how to reclaim my voting rights.
My ordeal began in 1987 in Marietta, Ga., where I pleaded guilty to disciplining my two stepsons, although the state of Georgia called it "child simple assault and child abuse." Hey, my Daddy paddled my butt when I needed it, so it never occurred to me that it was against the law to spank bad kids. I got a fine and probation. My sentence was finally over in 2002.
After a while, I tried to get my rights restored, applying to the state of Florida in 2008. About 18 months passed, and I heard nothing. Then, at the workshop, I was told to apply to Atlanta, where my case originated. When I inquired in Georgia, I realized my voting rights had automatically been reinstated in 2002.
I went to the voter's registration office locally, which verified my eligibility with Georgia. Finally, I got my voter's registration card in May.
The number of disenfranchised citizens in Hillsborough County might easily alter the outcome of many close elections.
Civil rights restoration should be an automatic process once felons complete their court-mandated sentence. They should not have to endure the politics and hassles of getting their rights returned.
Getting a second chance to be a productive citizen in all respects should be part of the cornerstone of our democracy.
Al Mccray is a Tampa resident and freelance writer whose work occasionally appears in the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.