As 2017 winds down, signature gatherers across Florida are on a last push to qualify the Voting Rights Restoration Initiative for the 2018 ballot, an initiative that, if it passes, would restore voting rights to well over a million Floridians.
The campaign needs just over 766,000 certified signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot. Since many signatures in any such drive are ultimately disqualified, campaigners are aiming for 1.1 million signatures statewide that they can take to the division of elections in Tallahassee, the state capital, for review and certification by the February 1 deadline. To do this, they have to submit all of their signatures to the counties by the end of this year, so that the counties can in turn forward them to Tallahassee.
So far, organizers believe they have close to 1 million signatures. In the next 10 days, they will be making their final push.
Organizers with the grassroots group Floridians for a Fair Democracy, which is pushing the proposal, are confident that it will qualify. And when it does, the Rights Restoration Initiative could turn out to be the most important initiative in the country next November. The implications for how we define our democracy and whom we include within it are huge.
Florida is one of a handful of states, mostly in the Deep South, that make it all but impossible for felons to regain their right to vote after they complete their sentence. Currently, an individual has to petition the governor for an individual restoration of rights, and few such cases are granted. The process is designed to be as byzantine and as insurmountable as possible. In practice, for the vast majority of felons, disenfranchisement is a lifelong condition.
Florida has permanently disenfranchised felons ever since the post–Civil War state Constitution was rewritten to prevent blacks and poor people from voting. In an age of mass incarceration, this bilious law has created a silent epidemic of disenfranchisement, with more and more people having to live out their lives as voteless citizens even after they exit the criminal-justice system.
When I reported on this issue in the years after the 2000 presidential election, when the margin between Al Gore and George W. Bush was razor-thin in Florida, the ACLU, the Sentencing Project, and other groups studying the crisis estimated that there were upward of 750,000 disenfranchised Floridians, the majority of whom had completed their sentence.
Sixteen years later, the numbers have grown. The ACLU and other groups believe that now some 1.5 million Floridians—about 10 percent of the adult citizen population—are voteless, some because they are still serving sentences, but most because of felony convictions in their past. Among African-American men in the state, the number is north of 20 percent.
If the initiative passes, it will automatically restore voting rights to most felons after their sentences are complete (murderers and sexual offenders are excluded). “This is about creating a more inclusive democracy,” argues 50-year-old Desmond Meade, an Orlando resident who founded the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition a few years back. Meade knows the effects of disenfranchisement firsthand: Addicted to drugs, he cycled in and out of jail and prison in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the mid-2000s, homeless and depressed, Meade had an epiphany and, deciding he didn’t want to live that way anymore, managed to wean himself off drugs. He went to college and eventually got a law degree. Until his rights are restored, however, he can neither vote nor take the Florida bar exam in order to begin working as an attorney.
“It’s less about how a person votes, whether they vote Democrat or Republican,” he explains. “It’s about redemption, second chances. Once a person has served their time, they should be able to move on with their lives.”
If the initiative qualifies for the ballot, it will then need 60 percent support in the November election in order for it to be written into the state’s Constitution.
In a sane society—one, that is, with minimal respect for democratic procedure—such a reform would win near-universal support. Keeping vast numbers of people in a permanent state of sub-citizenship flies in the face of basic principles of rehabilitation and justice. Unfortunately, Florida has long resisted such reforms, and Republican Governor Rick Scott made a point of reversing his predecessor’s efforts to speed up the cumbersome application process by which the disenfranchised petition the governor to have their rights restored. Similar battles around re-enfranchisement have occurred in Iowa, Virginia, and a few other states in recent years, where Democratic governors have pushed reforms, and their Republican successors and/or Republican legislators have then attempted, with varying degrees of success, to undo those changes. But until now, no state that permanently disenfranchises felons has gone the initiative route to overturn its disenfranchisement statutes (in 2006, Rhode Island did pass a referendum that restored voting rights to people on probation and parole).
This time around, however, the organizers of the initiative believe they have a real chance of success in Florida, America’s disenfranchisement capital. Meade says that people have been coming to help with the campaign “from Pensacola all the way to Key West, and all points in between. The most exciting thing around this is the grassroots movement, the energy on the ground around this issue.”
Hopefully, come November 2018, Florida will end the disgrace of mass disenfranchisement. It is long past time.
Clarification: The text has been updated to reflect the fact that in 2006, Rhode Island approved a ballot referendum that restored voting rights to people on probation and parole.