NORTH MIAMI, FLORIDA — More than 1.5 million Florida citizens are barred from voting today because of a past felony conviction.
One of them is Harold Pendas. On Tuesday, he stood in the hot sun outside the polling place in the North Miami Library asking residents to sign a petition to help others in his situation regain their voting rights.
“I feel hurt because I can’t walk through those doors right now and cast my ballot,” he told ThinkProgress. “I feel empty inside. I feel like I don’t have a say in the political process. This is taxation without representation all over again. If we already paid our debt, we should be released without the bondage. But we’re being punished for a lifetime.”
Under Florida law, which dates back to the Confederate era, residents with a felony conviction are permanently denied the right to vote, run for office, or serve on a jury, unless they individually petition the governor to win their rights back. The state is one of just three that does not automatically restore these civil rights after a period of time.
Now, Pendas is part of a state-wide campaign to change that law, so that those like him who have served their sentences can regain full citizenship. He and others are hoping to put the issue on the state ballot in 2018. In a state where elections are known to come down to a few thousands votes, the nearly two million people who would be re-enfranchised by such a measure could easily sway the state, and nation’s, future.
“It’s a very, very large number of people [disenfranchised],” he said. “If we can reinstate all these people, our voting power in Florida will be tremendous. We could dictate who we want to be our leaders and what laws and policies we want in the state of Florida. This is our fundamental human right.”
Pendas’ mother died when he was a teenager, and his father was in prison for 14 years of his life. He fell into drugs, and while serving a sentence on a marijuana charge, attacked a corrections officer.
“I had a lot of anger built up from losing my parents, and the anger brought me places I didn’t want to go,” he said. “But I had an enlightenment, and decided to help educate and mobilize people and be a leader.”
Pendas, who is now 26, began working with the New Florida Majority as a social services coordinator after serving three years in prison. He says it’s especially unfair that the people who best understand the horrors of Florida’s prison system aren’t able to elect people to reform it.
“We who are feeling the pain the most can’t make the most impact,” he said.
With thousands of people released from Florida’s prisons every year, the number of disenfranchised citizens is growing.
Nadim Nesbitt, who works as a mentor in Broward County’s juvenile detention center, told ThinkProgress he feels that makes the results of tonight’s primary not truly representative of the state.
“It’s definitely not inclusive of everyone,” he said, while gathering signatures outside the polls on Tuesday for the rights restoration measure. Nesbitt also speculated that private prison companies, who donate large sums of money to Florida and national politicians, were one of the forces working to keep the disenfranchisement law in place.
“It’s like a hotel. They don’t get paid if they don’t have anybody in the bed,” he said. “There’s an incentive for them to keep that bed full and keep them disenfranchised.”