By: Zach McDonnell
This post is the second post of a two-part series. Part One focused on the provisions of the Florida Constitution that disenfranchises ex-felons, how the administration of Governor Rick Scott strictly interpreted those provisions, and the now-moot lawsuit to upend Governor Scott’s felon-disenfranchisement rules.
In late 2014, the PAC Floridians for a Fair Democracy started the long process of putting a rights-restoration amendment in front of Florida voters, with an initial goal of making it to the ballot in 2016; however, the signature threshold required under Florida law (eight percent of votes cast in the previous presidential election—which in 2014 amounted to 766,200 signatures) was far too formidable to be met in such a short amount of time. By October 2016, restoration advocates, led by the non-profit Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), had garnered only enough signatures to trigger review by the Florida Supreme Court for the ballot initiative’s language—a mere 76,632 (the Florida Supreme Court later approved the language on April 20, 2017).
After the November 2016 election, however, many groups began promoting the FRRC’s cause. By fall 2017, the ACLU of Florida had contributed $1.6 million to hire people and collect signatures, according to the New York Times Magazine (Ballotpedia reports that the ACLU state and national chapters ultimately spent over a combined $5 million on the campaign). Other donors followed suit, including the Open Philanthropy Action Fund, a PAC funded primarily by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. FRRC’s efforts become much more publicized, with PR led by its President and CEO Desmond Meade and Treasurer Neil Volz. Meade and Volz’s strategy during the course of their campaign for Amendment 4, which required a 60% supermajority to pass, was to appeal to as wide a swath of Florida voters as possible—not just minority communities disproportionately impacted by disenfranchisement and potentially sympathetic liberal voters. Indeed, various profiles of them often emphasize their brotherly bond, despite coming from very different backgrounds—Meade is a black, formerly homeless drug- and weapons-related ex-offender who eventually graduated from law school, and Volz is a white, Republican former congressional chief of staff once involved in the Jack Abramoff illegal lobbying scandal.
Meade and Volz tried to heavily influence the very conversation about convicted felons; they stressed the phrase “returning citizen” to connote that those requesting their rights back through Amendment 4 have already completed their sentences and are out in Florida’s communities, entirely without a real stake in the state’s politics. The FRRC organizers’ slogan during the Amendment 4 campaign was: “When a debt is paid, it’s paid.” This appeal to fundamental values, as opposed to partisan political instincts, was apparently enough to appeal to a wide-ranging coalition voters. Indeed, Florida’s long list of 533 felony offenses—including crimes as obscure as disturbing a lobster trap, trespassing on a construction site, and tampering with an odometer—may have worked to the FRRC’s advantage: many Floridians know at least one person who is permanently disenfranchised, and those direct ties have led many to be sympathetic to the cause. Due to such wide-ranging awareness of and familiarity with the issue, Volz gathered many signatures in places where many would not expect: Trump rallies. For his part, Meade has become a ubiquitous presence for the cause, appearing in such diverse settings as Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal”, a gala benefit for the think-tank Demos, and even Ben & Jerry’s website. Celebrities such as Rihanna and John Legend, among others, eventually joined Meade and Volz’s cause.
Amendment 4 eventually received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot on January 23, 2018. Indeed, the FRRC blew well past that goal, ultimately garnering an incredible unofficial total of 842,796 valid signatures. Over one-third of those signatures came from just six congressional districts (Florida requires the 8% signature threshold to be met in at least half of its 27 congressional districts)—all but one of which are represented by Democrats. But make no mistake: FRRC succeeded in gaining widespread popularity in the country’s most consistently 50-50 state. By early to mid-2018, Amendment 4 was polling at more than 70% approval. Florida’s gubernatorial candidates, including Agricultural Commissioner Putnam, all refused to take a strong stance against Amendment 4. Andrew Gillum, the eventual Democratic nominee, came out strongly in favor of the initiative. Republican nominee Ron DeSantis refused to even take a stance on the issue during the primary and even well into mid-September; DeSantis eventually came out against the measure but never actively campaigned against it. In fact, as the New York Times Magazine noted in September, nobody had formed a PAC against the ballot initiative; the lone organized opposition seems to have come from Tampa local-government attorney Richard A. Harrison, who founded an anti-Amendment 4 501(c)(4) that appears not to have updated its website since mid-2017. Of course, Harrison was no match for the initiative: Amendment 4 passed with 64.5% of the vote, and it was the most voted-on Florida ballot initiative (among twelve) in an election that is quickly becoming notorious for under-voting.
The passage of Amendment 4 will have consequences that will reverberate throughout Florida politics and, therefore, American politics as a whole. Amendment 4 appears to be the single largest enfranchisement of voters since the 1971 ratification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which, President Nixon claimed, enfranchised 11 million people between ages 18 and 21. The exact size of Amendment 4’s enfranchisement is unclear: various news outlets have reported that anywhere from 1.4 to 1.7 million Floridians’ rights will be automatically restored—either way, this represents at least a quarter of the more than 6 million US adults disenfranchised due to felony convictions. One thing is certain, however: Amendment 4’s passage will help to alleviate the racial disparities intended by Florida’s old Black Codes, 1868 Constitution, and 1968 Constitution. Although a majority of Florida ex-felons are white, the Sentencing Project reports that blacks are highly disproportionately impacted by felon disenfranchisement: before Amendment 4’s passage, over one in five black adults in Florida had no vote due to the felony restriction. In a Florida election seasons marred by a serious racial divide, Amendment 4’s passage thus presents an extraordinary anomaly in an unexpected place and time: a moment of togetherness, across racial and political lines, in pursuit of a common goal toward greater liberty.