The Democratic and Republican parties each have demographic groups they can generally count on for support every November. But a weekend ruling has added hundreds of thousands of potential voters to the rolls of a critical swing state—and there’s no clear direction which way they will cast their ballots.
The group in question: felons, who will now be able to vote in Florida for the first time since their convictions.
“We fought too long and hard to get our voting eligibility restored to just give it away to a political party,” said Neil Volz, deputy director for Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which championed the Amendment 4 felon voting rights ballot measure that passed in 2018 with a majority of support.
Volz, a former felon involved in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal who has since focused on the rights of returning citizens, is careful not to wade into the partisan nature of the debate. But he acknowledges the significance of November.
“At the same time, the clock’s ticking,” he said. “Elections are coming.”
On Sunday, a federal judge ruled that felons will be able to register to vote in the state without paying fees associated with their sentences. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle declared the state’s previous law on the books, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, as unconditional, calling it a “pay-to-vote system.” Early estimates game out scenarios where potentially 1.4 million voters could make it to the polls on Election Day.
Voting rights advocates and Democrats cite plenty of reasons to be hopeful about boosted turnout in the fall. But they are also starting to caution that with so many unknowns, including an unexpected influx of potential voters in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, there’s reason to tread carefully.
“It’s almost like landing on the moon,” said state Rep. Evan Jenne, a Democrat from Broward County. “It’s one small step. There are literally a million plus smaller steps that now need to take place individually in order for this to be some sort of bonanza for either political party.”
Biden and Trump have each designated Florida, with 29 electoral college votes up for grabs, as critical to their competing strategies, hosting virtual events and rallies in the case of the former and reportedly musing about moving the national convention to the state by the latter. But neither has yet seized on the Sunday ruling, leaving some advocates worried that neither party will actively engage in voter registration efforts to the degree that’s necessary to boost overall turnout.
Florida polling averages currently give a slight edge to Biden in the state, earning 48.3 percent to Trump’s 45 percent. And in recent weeks, one Florida Democrat has gotten a closer look as the party’s presumptive nominee openly discusses his campaign’s vice presidential vetting process.
Rep. Val Demings, a second-term congresswoman representing Florida’s 10th congressional district who served as the chief of police in Orlando, has been a vocal supporter and surrogate of Biden’s since early March—and has been a supporter of expanding voting rights to former felons for much longer. Demings’ law-and-order background as a three-decade veteran of the Orlando Police Department has drawn praise from Bidenworld insiders, who see her as a potential counterpoint to an administration that Biden has attacked as corrupt, and might serve as an effective shield against attacks from the Trump campaign that extending the franchise to felons is “crooked politics.”
The congresswoman, whose boosters within the Biden campaign include the candidate’s wife Dr. Jill Biden, has been frequently floated as a potentially leading contender among the women being considered as running mate, despite a lower national profile than other contenders. In a conference call with high-tier campaign donors about the selection process, Demings’ name came up as a potential Florida rainmaker.
“She already checked a lot of boxes for a potential veep pick, even before the ruling,” said one Biden campaign donor who was on that call. “I can see this adding just a touch more wind at the back of any running mate who has a Florida connection—anything that makes Florida more in-play is good for Demings.”
Demings has been a vocal supporter of Amendment 4 since its passage two years ago, tweeting on Tuesday that she was glad to hear of Hinkle’s decision to “uphold this cherished ideal and take us one step closer to true enfranchisement.” That support could also undercut recent criticism from Black Lives Matter supporters and criminal justice reform advocates that her law enforcement background, as well as sponsorship of legislation that would make police officers a protected class, tracks Biden’s authorship of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act too closely.
Still, voting rights advocates, and even some Democrats, are cautioning against the premise that the recent court ruling freeing felons of financial obligations before registering would automatically benefit Biden.
“Black Floridians are far more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system than their white counterparts and people make assumptions about how black people are going to vote,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, citing racial biases in the system that disproportionately affect black Americans. “That leads people to assume that this is going to benefit one party over the other. The fact is that the majority of people in Florida with felony convictions are white. And that there are surely hundreds of thousands of people who would vote Republican who are in this population.”
“It’s actually really hard to say how this plays out from a partisan perspective,” Morales-Doyle said. “There’s no definitive answer as to who it benefits.”
Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney for the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, emphasized the historically unprecedented nature of the move, which will likely be amplified by the even more intense nature of the 2020 election.
“We haven’t seen as significant an enlargement of the electorate since the 26th Amendment,” Ebenstein said. “Florida has gone from an absolute outlier in disenfranchising people with a conviction for life, to a state with this huge opportunity for returning citizens to register and vote and not only have their voice counted, but have their voice possibly be a determinative factor in electing the next president of the United States.”
Indeed, experts agree there’s essentially no conclusive evidence that can serve as a predictor of how the newly minted population might register and vote in November. While Democrats have traditionally embraced increased voter registration efforts and turnout, some are being extra cautious about openly touting the prospect that droves of new voters will turn out during the COVID-19 pandemic just to vote against Trump.
“Let’s be honest, let’s say all 1.4 million people register to vote, they’re not all going to be Democrats,” said Jenne. “They’re not all going to like Joe Biden.”
Jenne, who discusses voter engagement issues with fellow Democrats regionally across Southeast Florida, said he’s cautiously anticipating ways new voters will be stymied, citing apathy from DeSantis to engage the population and a lack of money on the Democratic side.
“With everything I’m seeing regionally in the state, I don’t know how many people have a couple hundred thousand dollars laying around to throw to a campaign to get mail out to register voters right now,” he said. “It’s going to take deep pockets if you want to see a significant impact come out of that population.”
While newly enfranchised felons’ preferences remain to be seen, non-partisan advocates and Democrats are also expecting a high degree of politicization from ruling. On Tuesday, the partisan backlash from the ruling came from the top ranking state-wide executive, with DeSantis, the first term Republican governor, stating his intention to appeal Hinkle’s decision.
“It’ll go to the 11th Circuit, and we'll see what happens there,” he said to reporters in Miami about the Sunday ruling.
Trump has weighed into felons’ rights, signing the First Step Act into law in 2018. During the Super Bowl in February, his campaign sought to capitalize on the legislation, airing a multi-million dollar ad, ostensibly about criminal justice reform, centered around Alice Marie Johnson, a black grandmother who was sentenced to life in prison in the late 1990s for a nonviolent drug offense and whom the president pardoned in 2018. The ad portrayed Johnson, whose case was brought to the public’s attention by reality star Kim Kardashian West, thanking Trump for commuting her sentence and was widely panned as pandering to the African-American community.
While not tackling the Sunday ruling specifically, Biden’s campaign has nonetheless taken additional steps to work towards voter enfranchisement initiatives and boosting turnout, particularly among African-American voters. During the Democratic primary, black voters helped guide Biden’s campaign towards the nomination after a resounding win in South Carolina. On Tuesday, his campaign announced a national director for voter protection to focus on voter rights and the disenfranchisement of people of color.
The Biden campaign has not proposed any specific policies regarding protecting access to voting during the coronavirus pandemic either—due in part, as The Daily Beast has previously reported, to concerns that a strong endorsement of any Democratic proposals in Congress to do so might politicize the issue of election security and doom such efforts.
But the selection of a running mate with strong ties to the voter-rights movement could galvanize potential supporters in a state where that battle has recently been won. In addition to Demings, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, another Democrat who the campaign is vetting as a potential running mate to Biden and a top choice among some who have his ear, has devoted the years following her failed 2018 gubernatorial bid to combatting voter suppression efforts through her organization Fair Fight.
“This court case has turbocharged a process that was already underway,” Volz said. “This constituency will have a big impact on the election. Returning citizens are looking out for who’s supporting us.”