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.


  1. Sen. Travis Hutson presents his Job Growth Grant Fund legislation to the Senate Education Committee on Nov. 12, 2019. The Florida Channel
    The original version would have targeted charter schools only.
  2. Florida Senator Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, was the sponsor of a law that was to go into effect Friday that would have created new requirements for abortion doctors that could have limited the number of clinics. But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out similar Texas restrictions, raising doubt about the fate of Florida's new law. [Scott Keeler | Times]
    The delay, which kicks a vote on the bill into mid-December, could stall what may be one of state lawmakers’ most contentious decisions on a political live wire going into a presidential election...
  3. A flag supporting President Donald Trump flutters near the University of Florida's Century Tower before an Oct. 10 appearance on campus by Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle. A controversy over the political nature of the event has led to calls for the impeachment of Student Body President Michael C. Murphy, who helped set it up. Courtesy of Chris Day
    A push to oust Student Body President Michael Murphy comes after an email surfaces, suggesting he worked with the Trump campaign to bring a political speech to campus.
  4. Morton Myers, 40, is an entrepreneur, a lifelong Clearwater resident and now a candidate for mayor who comes from a family of Scientologists. He says he is not a practicing Scientologist and is running to bring change and representation to all residents. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Morton Myers says he’s not an active member. But with family on Scientology’s staff, he says he’s uniquely positioned to find middle ground with the church.
  5. FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 file photo, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, after meeting with President Donald Trump about about responses to school shootings. Bondi is preparing to defend Trump against accusations that he pressured a foreign government to aid his re-election campaign. And she’s stepping down from a lobbying where she represented foreign interests (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE  |  AP
    “People are going to discover all over again what Pam Bondi’s made of,” says the consultant who engineered her foray into politics 10 years ago.
  6. President Donald Trump speaks at New York City's 100th annual Veterans Day parade, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) SETH WENIG  |  AP
    Trump will speak at the Hollywood summit on Saturday, Dec. 7 before traveling to Orlando for the Florida GOP’s Statesman’s Dinner, the Republican Party of Florida’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
  7. President Donald Trump speaks in front of a painting of former President George Washington in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington on Oct. 27. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP
    Trump pointed to Washington as precedent for an active businessman serving as president.
  8. The Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway was built in Tampa as toll road. Commissioners are divided over an elevated toll road proposed for southern Pasco.
    After frustration about their oversight of three potential new toll roads, the department moved up their timeline for scrutinizing the projects.
  9. Florida Senator Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, was the sponsor of a law that was to go into effect Friday that would have created new requirements for abortion doctors that could have limited the number of clinics. But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out similar Texas restrictions, raising doubt about the fate of Florida's new law. [Scott Keeler | Times]
    The Senate has opposed this bill. That may change in 2020.
  10. Tampa attorney Ed Turanchik Times
    The lawyer and transportation wonk waxes on politics and plans for the future. (Hint: Maybe not what you think. )