Years ago, they spent time inside Lee County's jails serving felony convictions.

Tuesday, they were able to walk into the Supervisor of Elections office in Fort Myers and exercise what they've spent years fighting for: their right to vote.

"We're full citizens again," Lance Wissinger said to his friend Neil Volz after they had signed their voter registration forms. Neither had been eligible to vote since 2004. 

That right was stripped away when they were convicted of felonies, joining more than 1.5 million disenfranchised felons statewide.

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In November, Florida voters chose to restore that right for former felons, passing Amendment 4 with 64 percent of the vote. 

The amendment gave people like Wissinger, Volz and Erica Racz the ability to become the first three citizens to register Tuesday morning in Lee County. 

Their convictions varied. Wissinger, then 24, made a bad decision 15 years ago, he says, when he got behind the wheel when he admits he shouldn't have and drove himself and his friend home from a bar. When he crashed the car, his best friend, Matt Montgomery, was killed.

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He didn't fight the DUI manslaughter charge. He was given a plea deal and accepted his 10-year sentence. He served 4½ years in prison and five years of probation and has spent 15 years since bettering himself and giving back to the community, he said.

Volz was convicted on conspiracy charges as part of the Jack Ambramoff lobbying scandal more than a decade ago. He pleaded guilty to fraud charges in 2007. 

Since his sentence ended in 2011, he's gone on to become political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an organization founded for former felons, or "returning citizens" as they prefer to be called. 

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Volz, a Fort Myers resident, was instrumental in the grassroots campaign to collect the signatures required to place Amendment 4 on the ballot to amend the Florida Constitution.

Racz said she served time on a couple 2007 drug and traffic charges. She said she took a plea deal and spent a year in jail and four years on probation, which she completed with no problems, she said. 

It's been 10 years since she was able to vote. During that time, she said she's written letters to Florida's governor to try to get her voting rights restored. Later, she discovered the campaign for Amendment 4 and also went door to door for Andrew Gillum's gubernatorial campaign, which supported the amendment. 

She walked into the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office at 9 a.m., the first person to register to vote in the county Tuesday. 

"I have to get to work at 10," she said. Racz said she now works as a bartender in Lee County. 

A room is set up for registrations on the third floor of the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office. Registrations will continue all day Tuesday, and those eligible will be able to register at any time hereafter. 

Amendment 4 restored voting rights to former felons who served their sentence, with the exception of those convicted of murder and sexual offenses. Completion of a sentence includes any period of incarceration, probation, parole and financial obligations imposed as part of a person's sentence.

The referendum overturned a 150-year-old law — also on the books in three other states — that permanently disenfranchised people with felony convictions.

Before the amendment passed, ex-felons had to wait at least five years after completing their sentences to ask the Florida Clemency Board to restore their rights. A U.S. district judge found Florida's system arbitrary and unconstitutional in March. The case is under appeal.

In December, then Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis said he wanted ex-felons to wait to register until the Legislature, which convenes March 5, has had a chance to vet the voting-rights restoration amendment to the constitution. He said the proposal should not take effect until “implementing language” is approved by the Legislature and he has signed it.

More: Florida strips felons of their right to vote at a higher rate than any other state

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Contributing: Maureen Kenyon, Treasure Coast Newspapers

Follow Brooke Baitinger on Twitter: @BaitingerBrooke



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