Ex-felons fight tough battle to restore voting rights

By Troy Kinsey, Capitol Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012, 10:02 AM EDT

Theo Johnson had no idea his journey from the prison cell to the voting booth would take this long.

After doing three-and-a-half years for a drug offense, he was released over a decade ago. In 2009, he applied to re-gain the right to vote, but with a critical election on the horizon, Johnson said the state continues to stall.

"Everyone in my family's voting, and I'm the only one not voting, so I feel disappointed, 'cause I know my vote counts for something," he said.

Johnson should have received his right to vote with no delay and no hearing, thanks to an automatic restoration policy championed by former Gov. Charlie Crist.

That policy has since been overturned at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi. As a result, there are now 90,000 ex-felons waiting for a chance to plead for their rights to be restored.

Last year, only 78 of them - or 0.0008 percent - got their rights back.

The political implications could be tremendous. Statewide, one in four African-Americans aren't allowed to vote, and it may be no coincidence that as a group they vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

Under Gov. Crist, more than 150,000 ex-felons had their rights restored, which could have played a critical role in handing Florida to President Barack Obama in 2008.

However, many of those ex-felons who regained the right to vote now have to re-apply under the new policy, because if they failed to register to vote, they lost their right again.

Political organizer Jamaal Rose said he is certain the new rule is all about a desire by Republicans to win in 2012.

"That's our biggest problem - that there are too many eligible voters and people who should have their rights restored, and they're being infringed upon by this state's legislature," he said.

This belief has only strengthened Johnson's desire to vote.

"It's keeping us down, 'cause there's a lot of us locked up, been locked up, and still want to vote," he said.

Johnson vows to keep fighting a bureaucratic battle he never thought he'd have to fight.