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On first day of Amendment 4, felons in Tampa Bay cause spike in voter registrations

By 5 p.m., 208 people registered to vote in Hillsborough County. In all of January of last year, the county processed a total of 612 applications. Another 438 registered Tuesday in Pinellas County.
William Nicholson, 57, looks at a voter registration form outside of the County Center on East Kennedy Boulevard in downtown Tampa on Tuesday, January 8, 2019. Since the passing of Amendment 4, former felons, like Nicholson, are granted the right to vote. "I've been looking forward to this day for a very long time," Nicholson said. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Jan. 8
Updated Jan. 8

TAMPA — John Young slapped the white sticker on his chest with pride.
Hours after his right to vote was restored, the 52-year-old retired postal service worker registered at the Supervisor of Elections on N Falkenburg Road in Tampa, a mere block from the county jail.

"I been waiting to tell this story for 25 years," he said.

For the first time since his conviction, which he said was for drug crimes, he can vote again.

Tuesday served as an inauguration in Florida, not only for a new state government, but for Amendment 4, the long-anticipated ballot measure expanding voting rights to more than 1.2 million felons. The amendment allows citizens who aren't convicted murderers or sex offenders to register to vote as soon as they complete their sentences. Previously, a felony conviction meant lifetime disenfranchisement, unless a person overcame long odds with the state's clemency board.

John Young, 52, wears an "I registered to vote" sticker outside the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office in Tampa.
John Young, 52, wears an “I registered to vote” sticker outside the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office in Tampa. [LANGSTON TAYLOR  |   Times]
Though questions remain about details, the law took effect at the start of business Tuesday. Elections officials announced they would accept applications from anyone who declares they’re eligible.

By 5 p.m., 208 people registered to vote in Hillsborough County. In all of January of last year, the county processed a total of 612 applications. Another 438 registered Tuesday in Pinellas County.

Young, who lives in Tampa, said it was ridiculous that he could work for years in a government job without being allowed to vote.

Now, he said, all politicians have to answer to formerly disenfranchised people like him.

"(Florida Governor) Ron DeSantis better get ready. (President) Donald Trump better get ready. Republicans better get ready. And a lot of Democrats better get ready," Young said.

Erik Watkins of Clearwater planned to take the bus to the Pinellas elections office on Starkey Road. A former crack cocaine addict, Watkins served seven stints in prison, a cycle that began when he left home as a teenager.

Now 48, Watkins works as a cook at a Cheddar's restaurant, the first steady job he's been able to hold down, he said.

"I've paid my debt, " he said. "I'm a free man and I have a voice. I'm a working citizen paying taxes so why in the hell can't I vote?"

Repeated in several interviews with those registering Tuesday was the feeling that disenfranchisement remains a major obstacle for felons trying to assimilate back into society.

"I went through my life trying to move forward but always felt there was something still holding me back — that I wasn't viewed the same as everybody else," said Greg Foster, 28. "I saw myself as somebody that was less than."

Foster said he was still a few weeks away from completing probation for burglary and DUI convictions and that he planned to register as a Republican.

James Burton of Tampa registered first thing Tuesday and stuck around to help others fill out their applications as a volunteer for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

"I still have these stigmas against me as a convicted felon," said Burton, 63. But Tuesday was "a step on the right path."

James Burton, 63, stands outside the Supervisor of Elections office in Tampa. Burton registered to vote Tuesday after Amendment 4 allowed most felons to register upon completing their sentences. [LANGSTON TAYLOR  |   Times]
James Burton, 63, stands outside the Supervisor of Elections office in Tampa. Burton registered to vote Tuesday after Amendment 4 allowed most felons to register upon completing their sentences. [LANGSTON TAYLOR | Times]
Court records show he served time for an attempted murder conviction. He said that came from a simple battery charge upgraded as a result of prior crimes.

Local officials took the opportunity to voice support for the amendment.

"This is about forgiveness and second chances for all of us," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg on the steps of City Hall.

As governor, Crist was known for revising clemency rules to grant automatic voting rights restoration to certain felons — changes later undone by Gov. Rick Scott. In an earlier phase of his career in the 1990s, Crist also pushed tough-on-crime legislation that banned early release before an inmate served 85 percent of their sentence.

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera said Amendment 4 is a step in rectifying a long pattern of discrimination at the ballot box.

"We have a shameful, bloody history of voting restrictions," he said.
Elections officials are still advising felons to make sure they're eligible before registering. Yet some may find that hard to do.

Desmond Meade, the president of the restoration council that pushed for Amendment 4, said he is confident that the ballot measure is clear. His group recommends felons check with local clerks of court to determine their eligibility and has even established a hotline (1-877-MY-VOTE-0) to help.

For the moment, Florida's Division of Elections has stopped running new voters through its felony database, according to the Miami Herald. That could mean some applicants could later be flagged and removed.

Rich Alvarez, workforce director for the non-profit Pinellas County Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition, said he has a felony conviction for wire fraud.

His restitution requirement has been converted to a civil lien, so he is still uncertain about whether he has completed his sentence. Out of a fear he could be accused for falsifying a registration form, Alvarez said he did not register Tuesday.

"I'm in limbo," he said.

Times staff writer Christopher O'Donnell, Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith and Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed reporting.

Amendment 4 allows felons who were not convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense to register to vote after fully completing their sentence.

Eligible citizens can register to vote:

  • at any Florida driver’s license office or tax collector’s office that issues driver’s licenses or ID cards.
  • online at registertovoteflorida.gov.
  • by submitting an application form (English or Spanish) by mail.

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