By Jonathan Pressley
I followed the 2016 presidential election from a hospital bed.
I watched almost every minute of the 2016 presidential campaign while I recovered from open-heart surgery. From Labor Day until the day before Thanksgiving, I had a front-row seat to an election that had high stakes for me and my family.
My wife is Puerto Rican and my brother is an ACLU campaign manager in Philadelphia, so I was very aware of the many issues that divided the candidates. Immigration hit really close to home. I wanted to vote. I wanted to have a voice, but I couldn’t.
Not because I was hospitalized, but only because I’m a felon.
In 2014, I was convicted of defrauding a pawnbroker and received two and a half years of state probation. But under Florida law at the time, I had lost my voting rights effectively, for the rest of my life. Felons were disenfranchised in Florida and a handful of other states.
I tried my best to be an active voter when I came of age. My first time voting was in 2008, when Barack Obama made history by defeating Sen. John McCain and becoming the first black president. That was my first taste of actually having a voice. I was 23 years old.
The 2016 election was the most important election I had seen since I first voted.
Once I had a felony, many things became more complicated. It was harder to obtain a job. Before my troubles, I never had an issue. But now I had to settle for a job that paid less money. When I applied to college, I had to turn in paperwork from my former probation officer. Working and going to school were still possible. But voting wasn’t.
I wouldn’t realize the totality of this until 2016, election year. As I was about to undergo aortic valve replacement, there was nothing to occupy my time but the TV. I had surgery on Oct 12. On Oct. 19, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had their final presidential debate. As I watched these candidates go back-and-forth, all I could think of was casting my vote. The only thing that stood in my way was my ineligibility.
As the next two years went by, many important elections were held in the United States. Alabama had a nice turnout of minority voters and it changed the whole election around as Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore for senator. Almost one in five of the 2.3 million black potential voters in Florida had finished felony sentences but could not vote because of their conviction, according to the Sentencing Project.
Most important to me was Florida’s election in 2018, when voters approved Amendment 4, a change in the Florida constitution that allows 1.4 million felons to vote again after they serve their time. That includes me.
Before Amendment 4, voting restoration for Florida felons was near impossible.
During former Governor Rick Scott’s term from 2011 to 2019, disenfranchised Florida felons had a clemency process. After a mandatory five to seven year wait, they could submit an application for a hearing. If they were approved, they could argue their case to the former governor’s clemency board. In a year, as few as 400 people had their rights restored.
My disenfranchisement was functionally a lifetime ban under the old system.
The successful ballot initiative automatically restored the voting rights of all felons except those who had committed murder or certain sex offenses. The amendment passed with nearly 65 percent of the vote. Second chances are in America’s DNA. Because of that, I have my second chance to vote.
These days I have more to do than watch politics on TV. I have a job. I’m a full-time student. I write for the Compass. And I’m raising three children with my wife. But more important, when I care about an issue, I have a voice. I have the right to vote.