Generosity, county clerk of courts hustle to restore voting rights for ex-felons

Gerald McDonald feels like he matters now, but it wasn't always like that.

McDonald had been charged with a felony in the past. He did his time, but still had court fees to pay and didn't even know it.

"I just felt like I wasn't a part of the community, " explained McDonald.  

That old drug conviction prevented Gerald from voting. But recently he got the unexpected news that his court costs and fees had been cleared.

"It was great to have my voting privileges restored. I thank everybody who helped pay off my court fines. I don’t know who it is but it’s a great feeling," explained McDonald.  

The fees were paid by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group behind Amendment 4, which restores ex-felons' voting rights. 

The measure to allow ex-felons to vote was passed overwhelmingly by voters in the 2016 election.

However, lawmakers, with the support of the governor passed, a law that requires felons to pay all their debts before getting back their right to vote.

Richard Harrison is a Tampa Bay attorney who was opposed to Amendment 4 from the beginning.

"We created a big mess with Amendment 4 and we still have a big mess," said Harrison. 

However, those who supported and voted for the amendment called the governor's new rule a poll tax and challenged it in court. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court refused to intervene on the matter. 

The hot button issue even got the attention of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, celebrities, and the public who donated millions towards those fees. 

Now a lot of that money is showing up at the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office. Hillsborough County Clerk Pat Frank says over 500 ex-felons have had their debts paid. 

Frank has also reduced the court fees by 40% and waived the collection costs, which she is allowed to do under state law. 

Last week, Gerald registered to vote and Frank says that's what it’s all about.

 "That makes my heart beat. I'm happy with that. That is a gift," said a gleeful Frank. 

As for Gerald, he is grateful and takes nothing for granted.

"So I feel even better about that I can vote and I have a voice in this election," he said.

The Hillsborough County clerk's office says it has received more than $500,000 in donations from the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.