Rhonda Sheppard has waited 15 years to reclaim her right to vote. That day finally arrived on Tuesday.
“Girl, I’m going to go outside and scream,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard, along with about 50 other people previously convicted of felony convictions, registered to vote Tuesday in Alachua County, the day Amendment 4 went into effect.
The amendment, passed in November, restored felons’ right to vote automatically once they’ve completed their sentence. It excludes those who have been convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.
Skepticism surrounding the amendment’s implementation arose when Gov. Ron DeSantis said it would need enabling legislation before going into effect. But when the day came, Florida’s Division of Elections instructed all counties to accept voter registration forms.
Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton said she was overjoyed at the turnout on Tuesday.
“Voting is one of the most precious rights we have and should never be taken for granted,” Barton said. “So, to see people come in the office today and be so excited about the opportunity to register is awesome. I’m excited.”
Previously, felons needed to wait five years to even apply for the right through Florida’s clemency board, Barton said. Even after applying, some never had their right restored due to a backlog in the state, she said.
“I’ve heard from so many people ‘I did apply, I applied several times.’ But when we check, their rights still hadn’t been restored,” she said.
Sheppard, 47, didn’t even attempt to apply because she heard how difficult and long the process can take, she said.
Sixteen years ago, she spent a little over a year in prison for credit card fraud. Sheppard taught her four kids the importance of voting, so she felt embarrassed when she couldn’t vote.
“I felt bad this time around because they knew I couldn’t vote, they were looking for my sticker,” she said. “So now I’m excited.”
People have the option to register in person or online in Alachua County, Barton said. They must fill out the same form as any new voter, checking off the box that their rights have been restored. Those who have previously registered must re-register, she said.
Once new voters turn in their registration, officials at the state level check to make sure the information is accurate. But how that will happen remains unclear, said Paul Lux, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisor of Elections.
“There clearly will have to be a new process in place and right now we don’t know what that is. There’s still a lot of questions that remain unanswered,” Lux said. “Whether those have to be answered by the legislature, whether those have to be answered by some other administrative agency that is given rule-making authority to do it or whether it ends up in court, which is probably where it’s going, something will have to be done to provide better clarification for that process before this can really move forward.”
With the amendment in place, Florida joined 22 other states that restore felons’ right to vote after they’ve completed their sentence, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
About 10,000 felons in Alachua County and about 1.4 million statewide can gain the right to vote under the amendment, but getting the word out will take time.
“It’s great that they can register, but they have to go beyond that,” Barton said.
Barton said her office planned a free workshop for new voters on Feb. 4 at 6 p.m. where staff will discuss how to vote and how the county counts votes.
Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler plans to hand out voter registration forms in the community where her records show someone may qualify, she said.
“We want to make sure people realize that they are still a part of this community,” Wheeler said. “There are a whole lot of people who have been so demoralized over the years, that they take some encouragement to get there to register.”
To learn more about felon voter registration, call 1-877-698-6830, the ACLU of Florida’s Rights Restoration Coalition hotline.