Nearly half of the 1.5 million citizens who have the right to have their right to vote reinstated after their convictions have been declared criminal live in Florida. Will their influence change the direction of the state?

The atmosphere was bubbling when they gathered in front of the supervisor of the Sarasota County Elections Office during the hot and sunny morning of January 8, a date that made no sense unless that they had already thought that it could never happen. They wore suits and ties, or t-shirts and baseball caps; they spoke softly in the microphones of the television or intoned the evangelical chant; they seemed happy or shy or maybe a little stunned. They said that they felt – in many cases for the first time in decades – as they were about to regain their integrity.

"I do not know about you, but I'm excited and excited that we're on the threshold of history," said Demetrius Jifunza, of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, just minutes before the opening of the election office to start recording. Forms of former criminals restored their voting rights through the adoption of Amendment 4 in November. "Today is a new day, people before politics, love for all and respect for all … The only reason one of us should wait today is to respect the person who comes before us and who also subscribes to vote. "

Tuesday was the first day that Florida's "returning citizens" – the etiquette of those who completed the sentence and the financial debts for their crimes prefer the word "f" – were allowed to register, ticking the box, as all potential voters do, says, "I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, my right to vote has been restored." Although Ron DeSantis, who became governor of Florida a few hours later, said that he felt the Legislature needed to step in before everything else was restored, the election supervisors in Sarasota and Manatee n & # 39; No further information on an amendment was awaited. Difunza said was "self-executing".

At the edge of the crowd, an African-American in her best Sunday – deep purple suit, white heels, brown lipstick, elegant blonde – turned her mobile phone aside to film the panorama while her 32-year-old husband had 32 years old, Alphonso Davis, went to the microphone. She looked as proud as a mom watching her only child walk around at the graduation stage.

"It's a long time coming," sighed Dorothy Davis.

"Praise the Lord, we have been waiting for this for many, many years," said Davis, pastor of Consuming Fire International Ministries, a non-denominational church in Bradenton. "It means a lot, not just for me, but for all the people I have served in the past 20 years.Our young people need to know that if they make a mistake, no one will hit them for the rest. of their life." lives. "

Davis had "been in trouble" as a 26-year-old man, said his wife, who was committing a criminal robbery after falling into a heroin addiction following the death of his father at the time. 13 years old. They only saw each other several years later. There were several others – "God had to work on both of us" – before settling into domesticity (they have seven children from previous relationships between them) and a community service based on faith. For the past ten years, they have run a "sober house", the Joseph Store Storehouse, for those recovering from addictions; Every Wednesday, their church also offers free food to everyone who needs it.

Dorothy Davis said that for years, whenever an election day came up, she felt almost guilty when her husband could not go to the polls.

"He never told me who to vote for," she added quickly, "but when I could vote and that he could not, it made me sad. he was doing so much for others and in the community, he is an educated man, a very wise man and he has paid his debt to society many times, it made me so sad. "

Davis stated that she also had a son who had previously been convicted of felony but that "his rights were restored long ago". Her husband might have had it as well, though he had not hired someone to take care of some rubbish right after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Unfortunately , the waste was illegally thrown away, its identification tags still being visible. It was only when he tried to recover his rights several years ago that he even learned the crime.

"He could not vote because of something he did not even know," she said. "He could not vote because of the fine."

A few minutes later, the pastor was sitting at the Elections Office filling out the form that would give him the right to vote for the first time in almost 40 years. This makes him one of the 1.5 million potential new voters in the country, nearly half of whom live in Florida. He is confident and committed that enrollment in these numbers will contribute to political change at the state and national levels.

"We will organize and our vote will count," he said. "We plan to do things in our community, in this state, and in the country, so we could change the politics of Florida."

This is the sermon that Dorothy Davis preached to her grandchildren for years, insisting that they register and warning them that every vote counts when they resist. At the present time, in particular, she feels the need for a change in political leadership: her son, who lives in Atlanta and works for the Internal Revenue Service, was put off work following the closure of the government.

"It does not matter if it's a democrat, a republican or an independent who gets elected, I only hope that they can do the right thing for everyone," she said. declared. "You should not be rich to lead a normal life.

"As far as I am concerned," she added, "2020 can not happen fast enough. "

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or carrie.seidman@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and on Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.