null: nullpx

Ex-felons begin registering to vote in Florida, possibly making a difference in 2020

In November, voters approved a constitutional amendment restoring the right to vote for convicted felons who have completed their sentences. There are 1.4 million of them and studies indicate they lean heavily to the Democratic Party. At least 180,000 are Hispanic. Univision accompanied one of them as she registered on Tuesday in Miami.
8 Ene 2019 – 05:39 PM EST
Yraida Guanipa outside the Miami-Dade County Elections Department after registering to vote Jan 8, 2019. Crédito: David Adams/Univision

Yraida Guanipa, 56, couldn’t wait to register on Monday more than 20 years after she lost her voting rights due to a drug conviction.

Rather than register online she decided to go in person to the office of the Miami Dade County Supervisor of Elections, arriving before the doors opened at 8am. “It’s very exciting. It’s a new day for me and all the ex-felons. It means I am now a complete citizen again,” she said.

The amendment could add 1.4 million voters to the electoral roll, potentially making a huge difference in future elections in the largest swing state in the country which President Trump won by 110,000 votes in 2016. Results in the 2018 races for governor and Senate were even closer.

In the 2018 election, 8.2 million Floridians went to the polls, out of 14 million registered voters, meaning that the 1.4 million ex-convicts represent a potential 10% increase in voters.

Of the total number, at least 180,000 are Hispanic, according to a study conducted by University of Miami law student Ángel Sánchez , who is also an ex-con.

One analysis of felon records by the Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald found that 52% were Democrats, 33% were independents with no party affiliation and only 14% were Republicans.

Convicted in 1997 on a drug conspiracy charge, Guanipa was sentenced to almost 13 years in prison. While behind bars she was only able to see her two small children on a handful of occasions. That remains her biggest regret, apart from losing her voting rights.

A Venezuelan-American, she fought for years to have her charges overturned or reduced, in the process acquiring the legal skills she now uses to assist others as a paralegal. She was released in 2008 and today assists other jailed mothers with young children and donates to halfway houses where newly released prisoners transition back into society.

After filing out a voter registration document Guanipa said was told she would receive an approval notice within 24 to 48 hours. On the form she only had to affirm that, although she is a convicted criminal, "my right to vote has been restored."

Election officials say the registration will be accepted as long as the applicant is truthful about having completed their sentence.

"As always, we rely on the voter indicating on the voter registration application that they are eligible to vote,” said Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Christina White. “If the voter affirms they meet all qualifications, we will register them. The voter’s information is then sent to the Florida State Division of Elections, who will research and verify the voter’s identity and eligibility under the new law," she added in a written statement.

Her statement came as a relief to Guanipa who said state officials had been unclear how they would handle the change to the law, despite the amendment being constitutionally binding. The language of the amendment had to be approved by the Florida Supreme Court before it was added to the November ballot.

Some ex-convicts have expressed fear of being prosecuted for electoral fraud due to statements by officials, including the new governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who have questioned the automatic restoration of the right to vote despite the clear wording of the amendment which was approved by the Florida Supreme Court before it was added to the November ballot.

Prior to the amendment, Florida law made it extraordinarily difficult for felons to have their civil rights restored, requiring them to wait up to seven years after they have done their time before they can apply to the governor for clemency in a cumbersome process.

That changed on November 6 at the polls. Besides electing their members of Congress and other state and local officials, voters were given the opportunity to rewrite the state constitution by approving Amendment Four, allowing felons to register to vote as soon as they complete their sentence, except for murderers and sex offenders.

Florida’s constitution had one of the most restrictive voting bans in the nation, a hangover from its post-Civil War constitution. The amendment received 64% support and automatically went into effect on Tuesday.

Ignacio Calderin, another ex-felon who registered online Tuesday, told Univision by text message; “It feels GREAT to check the box that said your rights have been restored. Today I am no longer a labeled a returning citizen, I AM A CITIZEN!! Amen.”