When nearly two-thirds of Florida’s voters said yes to Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who completed their sentences, they sent a moral message with political consequences that will reverberate in Florida and nationally for years.
“We showed that every ballot cast was a ballot cast with love,” Desmond Meade, president of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, told the Orlando Sentinel. “We showed what can happen when we come together along the lines of humanity and reach each other where we’re at. That’s what happens when we transcend partisan lines and bickering, when we transcend racial anxieties and when we come together as God’s children. That’s what happens.”
The quest to restore voting rights to felons who completed the sentences, including restitution and parole — excluding those convicted of murder and sexual offenses — has the potential to increase the size of the third most populous state’s electorate by more than 10 percent (13.2 million Florida voters were registered in 2018). Only three other states have lifetime bans on felon voting.
It is impossible to talk about Amendment 4’s passage without noting its political impact one day after the state’s two top Democrats apparently lost by very close margins — even though the moral and inspiration dimensions of the campaign cannot be ignored.
Consider that gubernatorial contender Andrew Gillum and incumbent Senator Bill Nelson were trailing in the unofficial results in their respective races by 34,000 and 56,000 votes, out of more than 8 million cast. Gillum has conceded; Nelson awaits a recount.
Had the former felons participated, it is not mere speculation that many would have voted for a Democratic ticket headed by Gillum, Tallahassee’s charismatic black mayor. Academics studying ex-felon voting reportthat anywhere between single digits to 35 percent of these eligible voters cast ballots. Of those voting, large majorities support Democrats.
In the final pre-election press release on the Second Chances Florida website, Meade noted the campaign gathered 1.25 million petition signatures, has 12,365 volunteers, made 2.27 million phone calls, sent 2.7 million text messages, knocked on 3.3 million doors and, using social media, had 91.3 million digital impressions.
But the passage of Amendment 4 is also a moral victory. It attests to the years-long personal quest of one man, Meade, to overcome obstacles that he faced as a former felon. But this was not about Meade alone, even though he launched a grassroots movement powered by a narrative of redemption in a state with many religious red and blue voters.
“Remember, nothing is impossible when you have God on your side,” said Meade’s voicemail, who could not be reached on Wednesday morning but clearly sees this work as a calling. “Thank you for reaching Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. We believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said his campaign’s voicemail.
This past Sunday in Tallahassee, where Gillum is mayor, those holding campaign signs at the “souls to the polls” early voting center talked about “inspirational” politics and what passing Amendment 4 would mean for them, their state and the country.
“That is just going to be a quantum leap,” said Dianne Williams-Cox (a local activist elected Tuesday to the City Commission). “The restoration of felon rights — oh my God! I’m speechless when it comes to that. You think about 1.4 million people who have been denied the right, even though they have done everything they can. They’ve actually been taxed without representation. So here’s an opportunity to line it up and make it right.”
“We are on the cusp of history here in Florida,” said Delaitre Hollinger, president of the NAACP’s Tallahassee branch. “Certainly Amendment 4 is something that we support and endorse. Empowering that many individuals with the right to vote, it will be a game changer. My hope is it will cause a ripple effect to happen all over the country, because we all need the right to vote — especially individuals who paid their debt to society. They served their time. Why should we continue to punish them? It would be groundbreaking... a game changer.”
On Election Day, the "Facebook page of Second Chances Florida said, “The moment we’ve been waiting for is finally here! Today we have one shot to Vote #YesOn4 and end 150 years of Florida’s broken voting restoration system… Not sure where to vote? Visit buff.ly/2PlRl9Lto find your polling location, and remember to bring your current, valid photo ID with a signature.”
By Tuesday evening, more than 60 percent of Floridians casting ballots had voted yes, capping one of 2016’s most inspired and politically important campaigns, an effort that sparked a grassroots army that will undoubtedly continue to participate in politics.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a national political reporter focusing on democracy issues. He has reported for nationwide public radio networks, websites, and newspapers and produced talk radio and music podcasts. He has written five books, including profiles of campaigns, voter suppression, voting rights guides and a WWII survival story currently being made into a film. His latest book is Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (Hot Books, March 2018).