Florida Could Restore Voting Rights to 1.5 Million Convicted Felons on Tuesday
Some of the state’s politicians are doing their best to politicize this largely bipartisan issue in the home stretch of the 2018 campaign.
MIAMI—When Susanne Manning was released from prison seven years ago, she knew that she could never get the same type of job or live in the same place again. But she was shocked—devastated, too—upon learning that she would never be able to return to the voting booth.
“I didn’t realize until the next election that I couldn’t vote. That’s when it all became a reality,” Manning told The Daily Beast. “My initial thought was, just something else that I’ll never be able to do.”
But Manning, who served 19 years behind bars for a grand-theft conviction, is one of approximately 1.5 million convicted felons in the state who could regain their right to vote if Floridians approve Amendment 4 on Election Day.
Florida has more than 13 million registered voters, so the passage of Amendment 4 could have significant political implications for the key swing state in future elections. For example, President Donald Trump won the Sunshine State in 2016 by just 113,000 votes.
Florida is one of only four states that permanently bans convicted felons from voting after they are released from prison and have completed their parole and probation periods. Under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, the state government has made it more difficult for convicted felons to restore their voting rights by slow-walking and, in many cases, rejecting individual applications for re-enfranchisement. But if 60 percent of the Florida electorate votes in favor of Amendment 4 on Tuesday, all of the state’s ex-felons—except those convicted of murder or sexual offenses—can add their names back to the voter rolls.
Manning serves as the re-entry coordinator for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a group of activists leading the campaign for Amendment 4. The organization stresses that its efforts transcend partisan boundaries and that giving people a second chance is a human- and civil-rights issue, not a political one.
“We all believe, deep down, that when a debt is paid, it’s paid. That’s a value that people support,” said Neil Volz, FRRC’s political director who was imprisoned for a white-collar fraud charge and moved to Florida to restart his life. “I could move to Texas tomorrow and vote. I could move to Georgia tomorrow and vote.”
While it’s a largely non-partisan issue, support for the ballot measure is divided along party lines among the candidates running for statewide office. The field organizers for the two major statewide Democratic candidates—gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum and Sen. Bill Nelson—are explicitly pushing Amendment 4 as part of their pitches to Florida voters. Scott, aiming to unseat Nelson, and Ron DeSantis, Gillum’s Republican opponent, oppose the ballot measure but aren’t actively campaigning against it. Democrats here believe that re-enfranchisement will benefit their party in future elections.
“Make no mistake: if Rick Scott believed for one second that every one of these voters were Republican, he would have restored their rights eight years ago,” Jeremy Ring, the Democratic party’s nominee for state CFO, told voters at a rally in Miami that featured Gillum, Nelson and former President Barack Obama. “In a purple state, with 1.6 million voters that Rick Scott says are Democratic voters, that means we are no longer a purple state. We are a blue state.”
The FRRC is uncomfortable with statements like Ring’s. For one, activists believe that such an argument would make Republican voters hesitant to back Amendment 4, out of fear that it would help Democrats in future elections. Academic studies have reached different conclusions about how this specific population in Florida would vote—suggesting Democrats’ conclusions about the political effects of Amendment 4 might just be wishful thinking.
“The assumption is, without a whole lot of facts, that every one of them is going to register, every one of them is going to be a Democrat,” Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast. “There are some stereotypes that could sway people, but to say it will change the politics of Florida—I don’t know.”
In fact, a 2012 academic study contradicts Democratic candidates’ suggestions that the passage of Amendment 4 will benefit them in future elections. The study, conducted by Northwestern University’s Traci Burch, concluded that the ex-felon population in Florida would have likely favored George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, which was decided in Bush’s favor due to his narrow, 537-vote win in Florida. The study simulated “outcomes in Florida under scenarios consistent with the turnout rates of Georgia and North Carolina ex-felons in 2000 and Florida ex-felons in 2008.”
Still, support for the amendment is, in fact, bipartisan, and MacManus, a longtime Florida political analyst, said she has never seen so much intensity and enthusiasm for a ballot initiative. The Koch brothers, who have bankrolled hundreds of Republican campaigns and conservative causes, support Amendment 4 as part of their push for criminal-justice reform. Dozens of religious, business, and law-enforcement groups have backed the effort, too.
Volz, a conservative Republican himself, stressed that he and his fellow activists were pushing the issue long before some of the Democrats on the ballot this year even considered running for the offices they are seeking.
“The data is clear. The quicker somebody can re-integrate into the community, the less likely they are to re-commit. And that’s good for everybody,” Volz told The Daily Beast. “You want safer communities, right? That’s a step in that direction. You want to spend less money on government, right? This is a step in that direction.”
That message appears to be breaking through the partisan noise and, more broadly, challenging the narrative that Amendment 4 is a Democrat vs. Republican issue.
“When they have done their time, I think it’s time for them to move on in life. They should have their voting rights,” said Nicole Moore, a Trump supporter who attended the president’s rally in the Fort Myers area on Wednesday. “Everybody deserves a second chance in life—Republicans and Democrats. We’re not enemies of each other.”
Some of the opposition to Amendment 4 comes from Floridians who believe the ballot initiative doesn’t go far enough to restore convicted felons’ voting rights. But a Suffolk University-USA Today poll conducted a week ago found that 70 percent of Floridians support Amendment 4. And while the groups backing the effort—like the FRRC and the League of Women Voters—are confident that the measure will pass, they aren’t getting complacent. Instead, they’re raising the stakes of the ultimate outcome.
“I told my children, if we win this, I can literally say that I will have participated in one of the most significant returns of civil rights in the last 100 years,” said Cecile Scoon, a civil-rights attorney who is leading the League’s Florida-based efforts on Amendment 4.