EDITOR’S NOTE: The narrow defeats of Andrew Gillum for governor and Bill Nelson for the Senate were of course huge disappointments for progressives, but the restoration of voting rights for some 1 million Floridians is a massive victory for democracy and should be a game-changer not only for the 2020 elections but for all future Florida elections.
Last year, I wrote in The Nation about a group of ex-felons in Florida who were organizing to end one of American democracy’s most abusive practices: that state’s wholesale disenfranchisement of residents with past felony convictions. Now their initiative, Amendment Four, is on the ballot, with a real chance of success. If it passes, it could transform voting in Florida.
It started as a long shot, for the Sunshine State has, ever since the days of Jim Crow, resolutely defended a system that effectively imposes permanent disenfranchisement on former felons. In the early 2000s, Governor Charlie Crist sped up the re-enfranchisement process. However, current Governor Rick Scott has, with the full backing of the state’s GOP, deliberately slowed the system to a crawl; people wanting to get the vote back have to personally appeal to a clemency board, on which the governor sits, show up in person to plead their case, and then wait. Most appeals are denied.
While other states that had disenfranchised felons have slowly enacted reforms—Virginia and Iowa, for example, both saw an ongoing tug of war over voting rights that, over time, made it somewhat easier for ex-felons to seek vote restoration—Florida has stubbornly refused to update its codes. By 2016, roughly one-quarter of the nation’s disenfranchised residents lived within its borders.
Not surprisingly, in a state with roughly 1.8 million disenfranchised residents—the cumulative result of decades of mass incarceration and draconian prosecution strategies—Scott’s deliberately cumbersome vote-restoration process hasn’t made a dent in the numbers. By 2018, nearly 10 percent of the state’s population was indefinitely barred from voting; most of these men and women had not even served time in prison; they had agreed to plea bargains, done community service, paid fines, served probation. Many didn’t even realize that a collateral consequence of their plea was a loss of voting rights.
In 2018, a lower court ruled that under Scott, the clemency board’s methods of considering restoration of voting rights were arbitrary and unconstitutional. On appeal, a higher court stayed implementation of the ruling, so the disenfranchisement machine continued apace. In an era of rampant voter suppression, gerrymandering, purging of voter rolls, and passage of restrictive voter-ID laws, felon disenfranchisement is simply one more tool, especially in the South, to stop the “wrong” kind of people from participating in politics.
Now, however, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, after its staff and volunteers have spent months crisscrossing the state to educate residents about the impact of disenfranchisement on people they refer to as “returning citizens,” is on the verge of securing a historic voting-rights victory.
The FRRC spent the winter and spring gathering over a million signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November that would restore the vote to approximately 1.4 million people upon completion of their sentence (those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses are excluded, as are those currently in the criminal-justice system). In May, Amendment Four, which needs 60 percent support to be enacted into law, was polling at 74 percent, according to data gathered by North Star Opinion Research and EMC Research. It has supermajority support among registered Democrats, Republicans, and independents; it is supported by majorities of both men and women; and it is supported across the state’s geographic regions. So comprehensive has the FRRC education effort been that only 3 percent of those polled were undecided about the ballot measure.
Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum supports the amendment; his GOP opponent, Ron DeSantis, has been muted on the topic. Even outgoing Governor Scott, who has spent his term in office making it harder for ex-felons to vote, has said he believes the people should decide the issue.
“The heartbeat of this campaign comes from the pain of people who are dealing with this policy,” says Neil Volz, the Fort Myers–based political director for FRRC, and himself a felon convicted of fraud while working as an attorney in Washington, DC, in 2006. After moving to Florida upon the conclusion of his probation, Volz spent years trying to get back his right to vote; the process was so convoluted that he eventually gave up.
While opponents tend to argue that re-enfranchisement measures are simply a way to get more low-income, black, and brown people to vote—as a way, that is, to swell Democratic numbers—Volz, an ideological conservative, disagrees. “This is an everybody issue,” he argues. “We have people from all walks of life, all political persuasions, impacted by this.” FRRC campaigners argue that re-enfranchisement is simply about fairness, about providing second chances to people who have paid their debt to society.
The argument resonates. In addition to support from a raft of progressive organizations and civil-rights groups, Amendment Four has also secured the backing of the Christian Coalition, giving organizers cover as they canvass the more conservative parts of the state.
Supporters quote research from both the Florida Parole Commission and the Office of Offender Review indicating that ex-felons who regain the right to vote are less likely to become recidivists than those who do not. The evidence is mixed, but if the correlation is true, it may be partly due to the fact that those motivated enough to go through the cumbersome rights-restoration process are precisely those also motivated to get jobs and stay out of legal trouble. The Washington Economics Group has also published research indicating that voting leads to increased reintegration into society, and that this in turn makes it more likely ex-felons will get jobs, and hold down those jobs. The report calculates that passage of Amendment Four would lead to $110 million saved in household incomes each year because of a falloff in recidivism, as well as $42 million in increased income among ex-felons because of more general “reintegration” into society. The report says the cumulative impact—when the added household income is combined with the decline in prison spending resulting from lower recidivism—comes out to a whopping $365 million annually.
“If you think about more than one and a half million people, you’re talking about stadiums full of people all across the state impacted by a policy holding communities back,” says Volz. “There’s a large chorus of people who see the system is broken.”