1. Florida Politics

A fortunate few in Florida regain voting rights weeks before 2016 election

Published Sep. 23, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — It took 30 years, but Gilberto Hernandez of Miami finally feels like an American citizen again.

He can vote.

Hernandez was one of the few fortunate ones Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet sat in judgment of four dozen people seeking to regain their civil rights, decades after they ran afoul of the law and weeks before what could be the most important election of their lifetimes.

Hernandez, walking with a cane, expressed remorse for his past and pleaded for the right to full citizenship while he still has the chance. He has Parkinson's disease and will turn 65 next month.

"For 33 years, I've been waiting for this day, to try to bring back my civil rights," Hernandez testified. "I felt that I was less than an American because my rights were all taken away. And I felt very bad."

Hernandez is one of 1.5 million disenfranchised felons in Florida, more than any other state, according to a study by the Sentencing Project. Florida revokes civil rights of felons for life, including the right to vote, serve on a jury or run for public office.

Under rules championed by Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, they must wait five years after leaving prison before they can request restoration of civil rights, a process that takes years and sometimes decades to resolve.

Hernandez was found guilty of dealing in stolen merchandise in an office supply business in the 1980s. He served less than two years in prison.

After his release, he got a master's degree in political science at Florida International University. The Florida Commission on Offender Review recommended that his rights be restored.

The long, slow process culminates at a hearing, on statewide TV in Tallahassee, before Scott and the three Cabinet members, who meet every three months as the Board of Clemency.

A clemency meeting usually has fewer than 100 cases, and the state had a backlog of 10,588 civil rights cases as of Sept 1.

At the current rate, the state needs more than 100 years to clear its case backlog. In the first six months of this year, the state restored civil rights to 237 people; in 2016, the state resolved 427 cases.

Four dozen civil rights cases were considered Wednesday and fewer than half of them were approved.

Some lost for various reasons. Other cases were postponed.

Richard Bennetti, 63, of Miami Springs left proudly with his civil rights intact, decades after a conviction for possession and intent to distribute cocaine.

Bennetti, who owns Ocean Drive Limousines in Miami, said he has kept his old voter registration card.

"I definitely want to be able to vote," said Bennetti, who counts former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham among his friends.

Dave Money, 48, of Tallahassee, who said he illegally grew marijuana to cope with mental illness, got his civil rights back but said he doubted the state would send him the necessary paperwork in time to vote in the Nov. 8 general election.

Things did not end well for Learlean Rahming, 62, of Miami. First she won praise for improving her life, but Scott discovered that she kept voting after her felony theft conviction, using a different last name.

Despondent as she left the Capitol with her daughter, Rahming told reporters: "It doesn't even matter to me anymore."

For many, it is humiliating to stand in front of the state's most powerful officials in a roomful of strangers. For that reason, they often refer to their crimes cryptically, with words like "what happened" or "my mistake."

Two Cabinet members, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, support an easing of the restrictions, but the key to every clemency decision is Scott, whose vote carries more power than the others and who supports the current system.

Before the panel voted on Hernandez's case, there was a glitch: Scott wanted to know if Hernandez made restitution of about $6,000.

He insisted he paid it back with money orders, but he lost the receipts during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and the state paperwork was unclear on the point

"This case is over 30 years old," noted a clemency staff member, who added that Hernandez successfully completed his probation and that the victim in the case died years ago.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Cuba, Hernandez can't quite vote yet.

He said his next step is to register at the Miami-Dade elections office so he can vote in November, but he can't do that until the Florida Commission on Offender Review gives him a document proving that his rights have been restored.

He has until Oct. 11 to register to vote.

Moments before the decision on restoring his rights, there was yet another glitch, as records showed Hernandez kept voting after his conviction, which is illegal. He said he was not told that his rights were revoked.

"For Gilbert, voting is like eating," his wife Mercedes testified. "He loves being part of the American system."

Scott relented.

"I'm fine," Scott said. "I move to grant restoration of civil rights."

As Hernandez walked out of the hearing room, he laughed when asked how he will vote. The answer came quickly: Donald Trump.

"I don't like him," he said, "but I have to vote for him because the other side is worse."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.