ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (CN) — Outside the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office in St. Petersburg, Florida, a young felon prepared to step inside and register to vote — escorted by her congressman.
Melanie Paine, 32, was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, a former governor, who declared Tuesday a “historic day” for people like Paine, who lost her right to vote after a felony drug conviction.
Tuesday was the first day that former felons could register to vote under Florida Amendment 4, a ballot measure passed in November that restores voting rights to felons who complete their sentence, excluding those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.
Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved the amendment, which will allow an estimated 1.5 million former felons to vote.
Across the state Tuesday, voting rights advocates accompanied former felons to elections offices to register — despite the fact that Republican lawmakers, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, have hinted that felons might have wait for the Florida Legislature to clarify how to implement the law.
DeSantis told the Palm Beach Post in December that there “just needs to be implementing language.”
“But bottom line is, there’s going to be a law that we’re going to have to pass in order to comply with that amendment,” DeSantis said.
The Legislature does not convene until March, when many Florida cities will hold municipal elections. Civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have said they will sue if the state drags its feet on implementation.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
“It is our job as elected officials to listen to the will of the people and not subvert it,” Crist said during a news conference Tuesday.
Crist, who served as governor from 2007-2011, did more for voting rights than any other governor. He restored voting rights to about 155,000 nonviolent felons during his term.
His successor, Rick Scott, rolled back that policy during his two terms in office.
Scott approved only about 10 percent of cases that came before the clemency board, according to statistics compiled by the Florida Commission on Offender Review. He also instituted a five- to seven-year waiting period (depending on the crime) for all felons before they can apply for restoration of their civil rights.
County elections supervisors across the state said they will process the felons’ applications.
“We are processing applications as we normally would,” Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Dustin Chase said in an e-mail.
Chase said he was unaware of any incidents in which a person was not able to register on Tuesday.
Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said his office processed about 70 applications on Tuesday, though he cannot determine how many are from former felons. Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan said about 20 applicants were waiting when his office opened.
“All went very well,” Hogan said in an e-mail. “It was business as usual for our office.”
Elections officials have directed felons to fill out a voter registration application in person or online with all relevant identifying information. Each applicant must check a box that attests that he or she is not a felon, or “if I am, my right to vote has been restored.”
The applications are processed and sent to the state elections office.
Felons must have fully completed their sentence, including probation and restitution.
That prevented one man from registering to vote Tuesday. Greg Foster, a 28-year-old construction supervisor, said he will register in three months after completing his sentence for a felony DUI conviction.
“I’m one of those who has made some very poor decisions in my past,” Foster said. “I paid my debt to society, went through everything to better my life and move forward, but always still felt like there was something holding me back, that I wasn’t viewed the same as everyone else. In turn, I started to look at myself the same way.
“With this amendment being passed, this opens the door for all of us,” he said. “It gives us a voice again. It shows us that we are not less-than anymore.”
A few minutes after entering the elections office, Paine and Crist stepped out.
“Here’s a new voter,” the congressman declared.
“I’m grateful for all the people who made Amendment 4 happen,” Paine said.