With convictions fully behind them, felons register to vote in Manatee County

With Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett making no bones about prior felons registering to vote, the enrollment process has begun.

The election’s office said a handful of people called or stopped by the headquarters at 600 301 Blvd. W., to inquire about signing up Tuesday morning, but it’s impossible to tell how many people signing up have prior felony convictions.

Roscoe Gordon, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran, said filling out his voter registration as soon as possible was a top priority.

“I need to vote every time they have something. If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to say anything when it doesn’t go your way,” said Gordon, who served prison time for cocaine trafficking and grand theft.

By the time former Gov. Rick Scott was sworn into office in 2011, Gordon had completed his 10 years of probation and paid his court-ordered restitution. But it only took a few weeks for Scott to virtually wipe away Gordon’s chances of having his voting rights restored.

The governor wiped away a process that restored the rights for most felons without the need for a formal hearing. That process was replaced by a mandatory five-year waiting period and the need to apply for clemency.

But that’s a costly ordeal, said Anna Maria Island resident David Higgins. The 53-year-old hired a lawyer to potentially submit an application, but it turned out to be too expensive.

“I was very excited when Amendment 4 passed. It was almost impossible to get my voting rights back,” he said.

During his eight-year tenure as governor, Scott 3,000 cases clemency cases were heard, with 10,000 more pending. Higgins couldn’t understand why the decision was made when he had already paid his dues many years — 10 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

“I have a government job and they didn’t hold it against me,” said Higgins, who works for the city of Bradenton Beach. “I told them the truth.”

Gordon believed that there were political reasons behind the move that disenfranchised him and about 1.2 million other prior felons in Florida.

“I figured the amendment would pass. You figure it’s a lot of blacks, whites and Hispanics that couldn’t vote, and the Republicans know that was to their advantage,” said Gordon. “Now they’ve got trouble on their hands.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was sworn in Tuesday morning, has indicated that Amendment 4 needs to be clarified by the Florida legislature. Bennett disagrees, stating that Florida’s secretary of state could provide guidance on how the law is interpreted.

Bennett told the Bradenton Herald that felons looking to sign up will require some “personal responsibility” to ensure they’re not committing a felony by lying on their application, but the goal, he said, is to ensure that it’s as simple as possible to vote. Higgins said his registration was flawless and encourages others with felony convictions behind them to do the same.

“I figured there would be a crowd here today,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of time to grow up.”

Those looking to register may contact the Supervisor of Elections Office at (941) 741-3823 or visit votemanatee.com to register online.