On Monday, Takesha Tyler took a ten-hour bus ride from Miami to Tallahassee, Fla. She had requested three days off work without pay from Target, where she unloads trucks, and spent about $450 between the roundtrip bus and hotel, all to be in the state capital for less than 24 hours.
“I’m just hoping for a good outcome,” she told ThinkProgress. “I don’t mind the money if it means that I’m able to vote. Then all of it will be well worth it.”
Tyler, who is now 46 years old, lost her right to vote more than two decades ago when she was convicted of selling drugs. Florida is one of four states that permanently bars anyone with a felony conviction from voting for life, unless they are able to petition the governor for clemency.
On Tuesday morning, Florida’s Clemency Board considered Tyler’s petition to restore her civil rights. Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the other GOP members of the board asked a few questions about her job and criminal history before agreeing to grant her voting rights.
“I’m relieved. Really relieved,” she told ThinkProgress Tuesday afternoon, yelling to be heard over the noise of the highway from a bus on her way back home. “This fight is over. I’m tearing up thinking about it all over again. It brings joy to know you’re back into society again.”
The board agreed to consider Tyler’s case earlier than scheduled Tuesday so she could catch her bus. After hearing the ruling, Tyler smiled and thanked the panel before rushing out of the capitol building.
“Next time, I won’t schedule it so tightly,” she said laughing, explaining that she plans to one day appear before the panel again after she files a petition for a full pardon in the coming days. “I got that in my mind.”
Tuesday’s meeting was the Clemency Board’s third meeting this year. Four times each year, the board meets to consider whether to grant pardons, restore the authority to own firearms, and restore civil rights to people who have waited at least seven years after completing their sentence. At each meeting, Scott and the three GOP members of his cabinet who sit on the board decide whether they believe the Florida citizens have turned their lives around and have earned the right to participate in the state’s Democratic process.
When Scott became governor in 2011, he made the process for Florida citizens to restore their voting rights significantly more difficult. He instated long waiting periods and chose not to allow anyone to have their rights automatically restored. While Florida’s previous governor, Charlie Christ, restored rights to 155,315 people during his four years in office, Scott’s administration granted just 2,488 petitions in his first six years in office.
As of the beginning of September, there were 10,246 pending applications for restoration of civil rights before the clemency board, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. On Tuesday, the board would consider just 21.
“A lot of people don’t get this chance,” Tyler said. “So for me, I’m really happy. I don’t mind traveling to Tallahassee.”
Tyler lost her voting rights when she was in her 20’s, when she said she made a series of poor decisions, including selling drugs. She remembers voting after she completed her sentence, then receiving a letter saying her vote had not counted.
“That was a terrible thing, she said. “It feels like I don’t even exist.”
Over the next two decades, she said she attempted many times to get her rights restored.
“It’s been a long process,” she said. “It’s been a process, believe me.”
Scott is currently running for U.S. Senate and board member Jimmy Patronis is running for reelection as Florida’s Chief Financial Officer in November. That presents a conflict: effectively, the elected officials on the board are choosing their voters. And the upcoming election could influence how they rule on petitions, Reggie Garcia, an attorney who has represented dozens of petitioners over the decades and wrote a book about Florida’s clemency process, told ThinkProgress in June.
“It just means they’re traditionally risk-averse, especially if an applicant’s got strong victim- or state attorney opposition,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee the governor and cabinet will say no, but it just makes it a higher hurdle.”
This is also the last clemency board meeting before the election, in which voters will decide whether to approve the Voting Restoration Amendment. If passed with 60 percent support, most Floridians with felony convictions who have completed their sentences will have their voting rights restored. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the advocacy group leading the push for the amendment, estimates that 1.4 million people will recover their right to vote.
While the clemency meetings continue, a lawsuit is pending in an appeals court that claims the clemency process is “wholly arbitrary” and leaves millions of people’s voting rights up to the “unrestrained discretion” of elected officials. In March, a court sided with the plaintiffs and ordered the governor to come up with a new system to restore voting rights, but the night before the deadline by which Scott was to propose a new system, an appeals court stayed the ruling.
For Tyler, restoring her civil rights means more than just voting. Because of her felony conviction, she says she has been unable to take out loans to go back to school. Though she said she loves her job at Target, where she has worked for 17 years, she aspires to do more with her life. She also wants to set a good example for her two children, who don’t know about her felonies.
Before Tuesday’s hearing, Tyler said she was hopeful that the board would restore her rights. She also questioned why she was disenfranchised in the first place.
“You guys are always talking about a second chance, but if you don’t allow somebody a second chance, how are they going to get a second chance?” she said. “They make everything so hard for us. I’m not asking for anything special. Just, I served my time. I did everything I’m supposed to do. When, just when?”
But after Tuesday’s meeting, Tyler felt differently about the process. She said in retrospect, the three-year petition process was not that long. And she said she plans to register to vote and cast a ballot in November. By voting, she said she believes she can help make the situation better for other people with felony convictions.
Though the 20-hour roundtrip ride will be hard for Tyler, given a recent ACL injury that causes her leg muscles to cramp, she said the trip will be worth it.
“You have to be here,” she said. “You can’t miss this opportunity.”