FORT MYERS, FLORIDA — Erica Racz lost her right to vote ten years ago when she was convicted of a felony. On Tuesday morning, she was the first person at the Lee County Supervisor’s Office to register to vote. Her mom and daughter joined her as she filled out the forms. Racz said her hands shook as she signed her name.
“I’m nervous but so excited,” Racz told ThinkProgress as she filled out her registration application. For a decade, on election nights, Racz said she has felt helpless. Now, she said, “it feels somewhat like normalcy.”
Racz’s mother, Patricia Racz, stood nearby as her daughter registered to vote. “She’s not a felon,” the elder Racz said, wiping away tears. “She’s a person with a felony conviction… They’re not crazed axe murderers. They’re people.”
Racz is one of an estimated 1.4 million people in Florida with felony convictions — known as returning citizens — who have completed the terms of their sentences, and who have, for 181 years, been banned from voting in the state. Now, Florida is in the midst of a dramatic transformation after the passage of Amendment 4 in November, which re-enfranchised returning citizens like Racz. (The amendment includes an exception for people convicted of murder and felony sexual assault.)
The amendment was officially implemented on Tuesday, and, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), “thousands” of people are expected to register to vote across the state before the day is done.
Neil Volz, the FRRC’s political director, and Lance Wissinger, a local businessman and returning citizen who worked closely with Volz, were among them. After months of work in the national spotlight, the two opted for a quiet morning, starting with breakfast at a local diner. They were joined by two of Wissinger’s best friends and their children and Volz’s wife, Pam Volz. Gloria Estefan played as the group waxed nostalgic.
“I got up super early,” Volz said. “I was thinking about how I got to this point — how we got to this point — and everything from the stupid decisions I made that got me in trouble to the amazing people that we’ve met along the way and encouraged and cajoled and talked to neighbors and petitioned. [We] got it on the ballot and ultimately changed the law, so today’s a big day.”
Wissinger said he woke up even before his alarm went off Tuesday morning. Wissinger served 4.5 years in prison and five years probation after a 2003 DUI. His best friend died in the crash, and Wissinger was convicted of DUI manslaughter. Going to register to vote on Tuesday, he said, was his own New Year’s celebration.
After breakfast, around 9 a.m., the cadre of activists and their loved ones walked a few blocks over to the county supervisor’s office. They stopped outside, where Perman Thomas, another activist and returning citizen offered a prayer.
“Father God,” Thomas prayed, “We thank you for giving them the victory and for… hearing the cries of the disenfranchised citizens… and for blessing us with this moment. Let us use it, and use it wisely, Father God.”
Thomas has not yet finished the terms of his sentence but will be able to register to vote in 2026 when he has. In his prayer, he added, “Thank you for setting the stage for me and others like me, Father God, that when the time will come, Father God, we will take advantage, Father God, of this great constitutional amendment.”
The group paused for a selfie outside the front entrance of the county office, and then piled in the elevator to go upstairs and register.
“I am surprised at the amount of butterflies that I have,” Wissinger said after filing his registration. “I’ve registered to vote before, and it wasn’t a big deal. No fanfare sitting in my house doing it on the computer, [but] to come down here and realize that something has changed after so long and to be a part of it and to be one of the first ones to be able to do this, my stomach’s still in knots. This is huge.”
Volz, sporting an “I registered to vote today” sticker, added, “It’s an emotional feeling right now. Like, we’re riding that high but also just really appreciative of all the work that went into this moment.”
A little further north, in Orlando, FRRC President Desmond Meade, who led the Amendment 4 fight, registered to vote Tuesday morning as well. “One hundred and fifty years of disenfranchisement, and this moment here means the end,” Meade told reporters who joined him. “This is a moment for democracy.”
Desmond Meade, who led the years-long effort to return the right to vote to 1.4M former felons in Florida, registered this morning at the Orange County elections office pic.twitter.com/lmyCTuhJeD
— Steven Lemongello (@SteveLemongello) January 8, 2019
Meade reportedly registered to vote right at 8 a.m., and laughed as he came to the question on the form that asks people registering to vote to confirm that they are not a convicted felon, or, if they are, that their “right to vote has been restored.”
“That’s one box I don’t mind checking,” Meade said.
The implementation of Amendment 4 represents the largest group re-enfranchisement in the United States since the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. It effectively restored the civil rights of 10 percent of Florida’s adult population, as well as one in five black Florida residents, who are disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement laws both in the state and nationally.
While, as of Tuesday afternoon, voter registration appears to have gone smoothly for returning citizens across the state, there are questions about what will happen next. While advocates and experts say that Amendment 4 was “self-executing,” meaning lawmakers don’t need to do anything to implement it, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who was inaugurated in Tallahassee Tuesday morning, has said he believes the state legislature needs to weigh in.
But the legislature does not meet until March 5, and, notably, there are municipal elections scheduled for early spring in the state. Wissinger, who said he would have voted for DeSantis in November if he had been able to, said he recently went to an event with the now-governor.
“I went down and told him exactly how I felt about it,” Wissinger said Tuesday morning. “Obviously, I didn’t get a sit down chat with him, but I got to the front of the line and had my chance to tell him, and the thing I said to him was, ‘I’m a returning citizen. Amendment 4 affected me personally, just so you know, and had I had my right to vote, I would’ve voted for you, and I still support you, but I really want to have my voice back, and I’d like it back as soon as possible.’”
For now, at least, the Florida Secretary of State’s office has stopped sending felon match files to the counties, meaning registrations from returning citizens are set to be processed without problems.
As far as the future goes, Volz also said Tuesday morning that he’s gotten many questions about the political impact that Amendment 4 will have. It’s the wrong question, he says. Before the amendment passed, he said he’d get asked if returning citizens were mostly Republican or Democrat, and he’d have to stop and say, “We’re not any of those. We’re not allowed to participate in this process so we don’t necessarily look at this from that perspective… Our view, as a movement and as an organization, we think there are a lot of folks who are returning citizens first and partisans second.”
Now, Volz said, they hope to take the energy that was behind Amendment 4 to help expand democracy and focus on issues that affect returning citizens, like housing and job opportunities.
“It does feel like people [are] projecting onto us some of their own agendas, and for us, we worked really long and hard to, you know, get the vote back. We don’t want to just give it away to anyone quickly based on some partisan goal,” he said. “We actually know it is the partisanship that blocked efforts to make the changes that citizens had to make themselves.”
The immediate next step, at least for Wissenger Tuesday, though, was a little rest. “I might just go pass out for a minute,” he said with a laugh after registering. “I feel like as soon as I get in my truck the butterflies are going to subside.”
Then, he’s going to knock on doors to register people to vote.