ORLANDO, FLORIDA — Marquis McKenzie lost his right to vote before he’d even earned it.
Late one evening more than a decade ago, he held up a stranger at gunpoint. It was a crime that McKenzie, who was just 14 at the time, admits in retrospect didn’t make much sense.
“Only thing I got from him was a wallet and a cell phone and I had a wallet and cell phone of my own in my pocket,” he said. But he was young and immature, and wanted to prove himself on the streets. A teenage brain isn’t completely developed and he said he didn’t fully understand right from wrong.
The state of Florida didn’t see it that way. Prosecutors charged McKenzie as an adult. He was convicted and sent to prison but continued his education behind bars, ultimately earning a GED. When he was released for good behavior in 2008 after serving two years, he was determined to turn his life around.
His hope for a fresh start hit an immediate roadblock, however, when he learned that because of his criminal record, he would never be allowed to vote. “It’s hard to be back into society if you’re not going to be treated like a citizen,” said McKenzie, now 28 years old.
Florida is one of just four states that permanently bars people with felony convictions from voting. More than 1.6 million citizens are prohibited from casting a ballot in Florida, which excludes more people from the democratic process than any state in America. Like McKenzie, many of those affected are African American. One third of Florida’s 1.6 million disenfranchised are black. Nearly one in four black adults in the state is denied the right to vote.
That may be about to change, thanks to disenfranchised Floridians who have turned their frustration into activism. The effort is being led by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a group trying help people with felony records regain the right to vote. The organization’s political arm has raised more than $17 million. In May, McKenzie was hired to work as an organizer alongside dozens of other employees with felony convictions.
The organization collected more than 840,000 signatures to get the Voting Restoration Amendment, known commonly as Amendment 4, certified in January for the Nov. 6 ballot. If approved, it will restore voting rights to roughly 1.4 million of Florida’s 1.6 million disenfranchised voters. (It would only apply to those who have completed their sentences, and murder and violent sexual assault would be excluded.) The measure needs 60 percent approval, which it seems likely to get. If passed, it would be the largest single restoration of civil rights since women’s suffrage.
The accomplishment will be more historic, though, given the law’s deep-rooted racist origins.
Florida’s felony disenfranchisement law, a holdover from the Jim Crow-era, was written after the Civil War into the state’s constitution by white lawmakers in 1868 to keep newly freed slaves from gaining political power. Florida was one of a number of southern states to adopt constitutions around that time to permanently revoke voting rights from people with felony convictions.
But the law didn’t function on its own. Florida’s white lawmakers also passed legislation making felonies of some misdemeanors commonly committed by African Americans struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Civil War, such as chicken theft. By 1890, 90 percent of the prison population in the South was black.
The United States has made significant progress toward ending discrimination and segregation since the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, extending protections to African Americans who still faced barriers at the ballot box. Yet those landmark laws never addressed felon disenfranchisement.
In other southern states, lawmakers have moved to weaken disenfranchisement laws. Last year, Alabama enacted legislation narrowing the list of felonies that disqualified an individual from voting. Louisiana passed a law allowing people on parole and probation to cast ballots, as long as they’ve been out of prison for five years. But in Florida, the governor has kept the power to determine who can vote and who is shut out of the democratic process for life.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that Florida’s disenfranchised realized that if they wanted the law to change, they couldn’t rely on those in power. They’d have to do it themselves. The movement to pass Amendment 4 is led almost entirely by people out or prison or who have finished probation following felony convictions, or as they sometimes call themselves, “returning citizens.”
“I was thinking about it the other day,” McKenzie said one sweltering summer afternoon in his hometown of Orlando, a few months before the election. “You don’t have to so much be in office to run your community. I guess that’s what organizing is all about.”
Political activism was not a given for McKenzie. His road to regaining the right to vote started three years ago, while attending a lecture near his home in Orlando on the issues of criminal justice and voting.
The speaker was an African American man, built like a lineman with the voice of a preacher, named Desmond Meade. His story about starting his life over and the power of second chances resonated with McKenzie. “Whatever you got going on, I want to be a part of it,” McKenzie told him.
Meade, who is 51, has touched the lives of countless formerly incarcerated people in Florida, inspiring them to join the fight to reclaim their civil rights. A gifted speaker, he has an almost magical ability to soften hearts and captivate audiences.
With his yearslong effort to restore voting rights now poised for success, Meade has become something of a Florida celebrity. He has shared in countless television interviews and he has an army of supporters lining up to join his cause.
It hasn’t always been that way.
For the better part of his youth, Meade was in and out of prison on drug charges, living on the streets and battling a cocaine addiction. He recounts hitting rock-bottom a little more than 10 years ago, when he was brought so low that he contemplated ending his life. Standing beside railroad tracks in 2005, he planned to throw himself in front of the next oncoming train. “I saw no hope,” Meade said. “I didn’t see a future.”
A train never came that day, which Meade took as a hopeful sign.
He began to rebuild his life. He checked into a rehab program and got clean. He completed college and then earned a law degree from Florida International University. But the state wouldn’t let him sit for the bar exam because of his criminal record. He looked into applying for clemency and discovered how difficult Florida made that process as well. Meade couldn’t understand why, after all he had done to start his life fresh, the state couldn’t look past his felonies.
Within a few years, he became the leader of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group started by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and other groups after the 2000 election. He criss-crossed the state, knocking on doors, trying to persuade people to sign a petition for a constitutional amendment. He knew it would be a long shot, but he had to start somewhere. One by one, more people joined him, and he went from being an unpaid organizer to the leader of an organization staffed by dozens of paid and volunteer workers.
The mission of restoring voting rights has become his life’s work. The principle behind his efforts is clear: Politicians, he said, shouldn’t have the power to decide whether more than a million Floridians are treated as full citizens. “We knew that we had to get that power out of the hands of politicians and put it in the hands of people,” Meade said.
Exercising the right to vote, he said, will be more than the fulfillment of a dream. It will mean he finally feels like a fully vested American.
“My being able to vote really gives me back my voice as a citizen, and I think that would be another surreal moment for me,” Meade said. “Not as good as when I married my wife, but it’s going to rank up there.”
The sun was barely rising, but inside Marquis McKenzie’s home — the same house where he was raised — the day was well underway.
McKenzie is tall and muscular, with the beard of a grown man — he’s 28 — but with the goofy grin and easy manner of someone years younger. He has tried to find a home for his family, but his felony conviction gives landlords an easy reason to reject his rental applications. For now, he and his family squeeze into his mother’s three-bedroom home, where his three children get ready for school after his mother already has left for work, like a carefully choreographed dance.
McKenzie was moving slowly this humid August morning. He had slept just a few hours, having worked well past midnight. With his new cleaning business taking off, he’s been shouldering much of the work alone until he can hire more staff. Most nights, he drives across Orlando, cleaning several homes and businesses, spending hours vacuuming, sweeping and scrubbing floors. Running a business while juggling his work for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition leaves little time for sleep.
When he arrives at the FRRC office a few hours later, McKenzie sits in on staff meetings and strategizes about goals and talking points for the little time that remains before the election. He said the most important part of his job, however, is when he goes out into the community and tells his story. Sharing what it means to him personally to be disenfranchised allows him to connect with voters, who often have similar stories of their own.
“It affects everybody,” he said. “Everybody in their family has someone that’s been incarcerated or knows someone that’s been incarcerated. It affects you whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”
Ask McKenzie about his criminal conviction and he’ll tell you it was a blessing in disguise. As a kid, he and his friends in the neighborhood competed for “strikes.” He said he was arrested for armed robbery on a Thursday, just one day before he planned to kill somebody — the final strike he hadn’t yet earned.
“It’s crazy, because I didn’t know anything about the law,” he said. “I would have killed somebody and would still be in prison today. The first person I came in contact with, I was going to kill them. I don’t know what I was thinking, to be honest with you. But I look back every day and I’m glad. I’m glad God stopped me that Thursday.”
During the two years he spent in a youth facility, McKenzie learned how to scrub his bunk until it was spotless, repeatedly earning accolades for having the cleanest space. And he became interested in politics, even dreaming of one day running for public office. “It’s crazy. I used to think about being president on my prison bunk,” he said.
Being in prison also gave him time to reflect on his mistakes. He committed himself to staying out of trouble with the law, an attitude he carried with him long after his release.
“I realized, I couldn’t wait for life,” he said. “I wasn’t going to keep repeating the same stuff I was doing. So from that point, actually being in the system, I started to kind of change my life around and rethink the way I was thinking about a lot of stuff in life.”
In opening his cleaning business, The Dirt Master, McKenzie followed in the footsteps of his father, who tried the same line of work but was never successful. He has become active in political issues in his community. But not being able to cast a ballot means that he still sometimes misses being part of something bigger.
“When I came home and got involved into politics, realizing that the way you can change a lot of policy is by voting, I realized I couldn’t have no … say into none of that,” he said.
Finding the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has felt like an easy fit. In the organization’s Orlando office, McKenzie has connected with dozens of people in his situation. Some, like him, have started their own small businesses — a necessity for many, since there are fewer job opportunities for ex-felons. The organization has even supported McKenzie’s business by giving him a contract to clean its office space.
The group also has given him an outlet for his political ambitions, which has made him realize the power people like him can have to change policy. He’s convinced that Amendment 4 is going to pass and thinking about how that will change his life makes him almost giddy.
“Just being able to do something I was told I could never do again,” he said, a big smile plastered across his face. “I think it will open up other doors for other policies to be changed.”
McKenzie works at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition alongside Neil Volz, a man he likely would never have met, if not for the movement to pass Amendment 4.
Volz is a good example of the range in experiences held by organizers with the group. The group’s political director and second-in-command, Volz was convicted for his participation in a white-collar crime — a political corruption scandal.
A native of Ohio, Volz made his way to Washington, D.C. as a college student in 1994 to work for his hometown congressman, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-OH). He worked on policy proposals and eventually rose to become the Republican lawmaker’s chief of staff. In 2002, Volz helped move the bipartisan Help America Vote Act through Congress after the Bush-Gore recount disaster in Florida.
“I remember watching groups come up and testify before our committee about the difference between the voting systems and then how poor communities were actually getting counted less than communities that had more wealth, and that just didn’t seem right,” Volz said.
But voting would not become Volz’s primary concern for almost another 20 years. After working in Congress for close to a decade, he took a position lobbying with Washington insider Jack Abramoff. When officials launched a major criminal investigation into Abramoff’s illegal lobbying practices, Volz pleaded guilty in 2006 to sending gifts from Abramoff’s firm to Ney, his former boss in Congress.
Ney and Abramoff would both serve time in prison, while Volz received a fine and a sentence of probation and community service. “I [made] some stupid decisions, some selfish decisions and I crossed some lines I shouldn’t have crossed,” he said. “Ultimately, the consequences were good for me, but the consequences included becoming a felon and having a felony conviction as a part of my record.”
The felony conviction meant that Volz could no longer find a job in politics. He eventually began volunteering at a Washington homeless shelter and then found a job with a local church. In 2008, he relocated to Florida, beginning what he called a “10-year journey of embracing a second chance and rebuilding my life.”
As he began to move past the shame he felt about of his conviction, Volz looked into applying for clemency. But by the time he got around to it, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) had instituted a mandatory five-year waiting period before an ex-felon could even appeal to get voting rights restored.
The previous governor, Charlie Crist, had instituted an automatic process to restore voting rights which ended disenfranchisement for more than 150,000 people during his four years in office. Scott eliminated the automatic process, however, and required every petitioner to appear before him. Since he took office in 2011, his administration has granted just over 3,200 petitions.
Volz said he began losing hope as he discovered how “burdensome” and “subjective” Florida’s clemency process was. It quickly became clear to him that his adopted state is an outlier when it comes to felony disenfranchisement.
Two states, Vermont and Maine, allow incarcerated individuals to vote, while 44 others restore voting rights either when an individual leaves prison or when he or she completes his or her sentence.
“I could move up north to Georgia, or Texas, and I could be able to vote,” he said. “And yet, here in the state of Florida we’re unable to.”
In 2015, Volz heard Desmond Meade give a lecture at a university near his home in Fort Myers. At the time, Meade was in the middle of a campaign to collect enough signatures to put the amendment on the ballot. The two men talked, and Volz said he knew immediately he wanted to help.
Volz and Meade are now the two most prominent faces of the movement. As Volz, who is white, likes to say, they’re exemplary of the diversity of “returning citizens.”
“One of the things I love about this movement is, it’s a movement made up of people from all walks of life,” he said. “We’re a diverse group, we have people who are partisan, we have people who aren’t partisan,” he said.
As with many organizers at FRRC, black and white, Volz is reluctant to talk much about the racist roots of felony disenfranchisement. Many supporters of Amendment 4 emphasize that most disenfranchised people in Florida are white. They insist that restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions is an issue that transcends race.
The movement’s aspiration to be colorblind may be one reason it’s gaining bipartisan support. In September, a group funded by the conservative businessman Charles Koch pledged its support, and recent polls show the amendment with more than 70 percent approval.
Volz believes polls showing strong support for the measure, but also is aware that his Republican Party has been hostile to voting rights in recent years. If the amendment were to pass and 1.4 million people suddenly were to become eligible voters, Republican politicians in Florida could be in trouble. But he said that in the end, expanding democracy is more important than partisan politics.
“Amendment 4 passing would be life-changing to me,” he said. “It would mean a better state, it would mean safer communities, it would mean that we’re actually getting behind a very basic principle of, when a debt is paid, it’s paid. I can’t imagine what’s possible if our state actually got behind this simple premise.”
Like so many other returning citizens, Susanne Manning started her own business when she discovered how difficult it was for someone with a criminal conviction to find a good paying job. Manning and her husband were charged in 1992 with embezzling $400,000 from her former employer. After serving 20 years in prison, Manning’s family encouraged her to go back to baking, a beloved hobby from her youth. “My dad’s favorite thing for me to bake was a coffee cake,” she said. “When I came home, he asked me to bake him a coffee cake and I was like, ‘Poppy I don’t think I’ll be able to do that. I don’t have that recipe anymore.’ Everything I had was gone.”
“He said, ‘Girl it’s not like that anymore. There’s such a thing as YouTube and the internet,'” she recalled. She soon discovered a wealth of recipes and tutorials online and now operates a small business making cakes. She hopes to one day employ others trying to rebuild their lives after a brush with the law.
Manning is currently on her seventh year of a 20-year parole. While 14 states and the District of Columbia allow their citizens to vote while serving probation or parole, Amendment 4 would apply only to individuals who have completed their sentences and paid off all fines associated with their convictions.
“Even though Amendment 4 passing this year would not affect me until my probation is over, I still think it’s essential that it get passed and that it’s just the right thing to do,” she said.
At the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition office, Manning appears somewhat out of place. She’s older than most volunteers, with short gray hair, a soothing voice and gentle manner. That comes in handy in her work as Florida Rights Restoration Coalition re-entry coordinator, a job that means she’s responsible for helping other returning citizens find housing and jobs — often a difficult challenge for people with felony records.
“I believe that the right to vote affects returning citizens in every aspect of their lives,” she said. “Right now, if a returning citizen can’t vote, how do they have a say into the laws that are passed regarding housing? How do they have a say into laws that are passed regarding jobs? We have absolutely no say into things that affect our live on a daily basis.”
White women are not often the face of felony disenfranchisement. But Manning said that she brings a unique perspective to the work and can connect with communities that aren’t always open to civil rights issues. Even among those groups, she has found widespread support for an issue that some mistakenly believe affects mostly African Americans and other minorities.
“I’ve never found anybody that tells me they don’t think it’s right or they shouldn’t do it,” she said. “I’m extremely hopeful about this passing.”
Aramis Ayala was elected Florida’s first African American state’s attorney two years ago. She made that historic breakthrough without the vote of her husband David, who could not cast a ballot in that election. That’s because David Ayala, a native of New York, has a federal felony conviction on his record and he has never been able to vote.
Ayala said he caught his first drug-related conviction at just 12 years old. From there, the criminal justice system “became a revolving door from the age of 12 to the age of 33,” he said. For his entire adolescence and into adulthood, he was shuttled into and out of a succession of group homes, juvenile facilities, jails and prisons, including New York’s notorious Rikers Island Facilities.
Ayala said he was eventually able to pull his life together, but it was a case of having to hit rock-bottom before being able to rebound. “During that time in federal prison, that’s when I grew up,” he said. “I told God I would change my life and make some better choices.”
When he was released in 2006, he found a job as a fitness trainer and met his wife, whom he credits with pushing him to go back to school. The couple had two daughters, became active in political issues, and Aramis Ayala decided to run for elected office. Around that time, David Ayala learned that because of his federal drug conviction in Pennsylvania, he wouldn’t be able to vote in Florida.
“While I was in the middle of her campaign, I was organizing, I was knocking on doors, I was in a Latino community speaking out for her, and it was an awesome experience,” he said. “However, I was not able to do the one most important thing you could do for any candidate and that’s vote for them.
“To know that my wife made history here in the state of Florida and I wasn’t able to be part of that history, that was sad,” he said, slowing down as he choked on his words. “When my daughters get older, I’m sure that question will come up. ‘Daddy, did you vote for mommy when she made history?’ And I’ll have to tell them no and explain to them why.”
Around the time of his wife’s election, Ayala said he received a message on Facebook from Meade. “I’ve heard me and you have several things in common,” he remembered Meade writing. “He called me that night and we were on the phone for two, three hours, just sharing our stories with each other and seeing how we had so much in common.”
After that call, Ayala began volunteering with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, collecting the necessary petitions to have the amendment certified by the Florida Supreme Court.
This year, Ayala, who is of Puerto Rican heritage and who identifies as Afro-Latino, is working as a community organizer for Latino Justice, another organization working to pass Amendment 4. He’s often out in communities trying to engage Latino voters. He said the issue is especially resonant for Puerto Ricans, who often do not understand why Florida would revoke civil rights at all. In Puerto Rico, citizens can vote, even if they are incarcerated.
Ayala stresses how difficult it has been for him to start a new life when Florida keeps reminding him of his worst mistakes.
“I have spent 12 years… putting my past behind me,” he said. “I have cut all ties to the justice system, I completed my sentence, my probation, and I paid off my fines. Right now, if I was arrested here in Florida, they would not be able to use my prior convictions on my score card because they’re so back-dated. Yet they’re using them to keep me from voting.”
For now, Ayala said he will try to persuade Floridians to vote on his behalf. Through a group called The Love Vote, he’s asking people to commit to casting a vote on his behalf. More than 120 people have said they will, and he fully believes that voters in his state will make sure this is the last time that he must make that request. He said he plans to vote for his wife when she is up for re-election in 2020.
“When Amendment 4 passes, it’s going to be a… I don’t know,” he said, trailing off as a smile spread across his face. “I know I’m going to be happy. It’s going to make me feel like I have a voice again. The feeling is one of those things that you really cannot explain until that happens.”
A changing Florida
Roughly 6 million Americans are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction nationwide, with roughly a quarter of them living in Florida. If Amendment 4 were to pass, most disenfranchised Floridians would be able to register to vote right away and could dramatically reshape the electorate in one of the nation’s most critical swing states.
Elections in Florida often are decided by a relatively small number of votes. In 2016, Donald Trump won the state by less than 113,000 votes. George W. Bush was credited with winning the state, and the 2000 presidential election, by a miniscule 537 votes.
At the time of that election, Republican officials across the country were engaged in an effort, which they’ve ramped up in recent years, to chip away at the voting rights of non-white voters. After the 2000 election, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that state officials may have wrongly labeled about 12,000 citizens as ex-felons and prohibited them from voting. Had they been allowed to vote, that historic election almost certainly would have turned out differently.
University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith called the purge highly problematic. “The 2000 election kind of put it on the scene,” he said, noting that Florida’s actions led to a wave of similar problematic voter purges across the country that have had a disproportionate impact on black voters.
Florida has two marquee races this year. In one, Gov. Rick Scott is challenging Democrat Bill Nelson for his seat in the U.S. Senate. In the other, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) is facing off against former House member Ron DeSantis (R) in a bid to become governor.
Gillum, who is African American and hopes to become the state’s first black governor, has made second chances a pivotal part of his campaign.
“Our society doesn’t look well on people who have a criminal record,” he said in a campaign video released in March when he announced he’d be running for office. “I believe firmly that people deserve second chances. That you make mistakes, you break the law, you pay the penalty, but that you ought to be given a second chance. Yet we punish people for a lifetime for a mistake.”
His Republican opponent DeSantis, who is white, is against the amendment, though he kept his view quiet until recently when he spoke out about his belief in law and order. “When people are dangerous and they commit crimes that hurt people, we held them accountable,” he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is no organized opposition and no formal political action committees have formed to raise money to oppose it. One small group, Floridians For A Sensible Voting Rights Policy led by Tampa attorney and registered Republican Richard Harrison, takes issue with the amendment’s “one-size-fits-all approach.” He compared Florida governor’s clemency power with the presidential pardon, saying it is not an entitlement. While he is not against clemency in appropriate cases, Harrison said he is opposed to changing the constitution in a way that would treat “career violent criminals” the same as low-level drug offenders.
“The answer to a flawed process, if you believe it is flawed, is not to throw it out and just grant everybody a blanket restoration of rights,” he said. “Amendment 4 is the constitutional equivalent of lighting your car on fire and burning it to the ground because the mechanic said you need a new set of tires.”
Harrison said he doesn’t buy into the racial justice argument, which he believes is stoking division. He’s also surprised that more groups haven’t come out against Amendment 4, but said he suspects that the polling on the issue is hard to trust.
“Just because there’s not a lot of vocal opposition doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of people who think this is a bad idea,” he said.
Two groups — the Trump Club 45 PBC, one of the biggest political organizations in Palm Beach County, and the Broward County Republican Party — have told members to oppose Amendment 4. On the other side, a prisoners’ rights group opposes the amendment because it does not include violent sexual felons and murderers.
Scott has not directly responded to the amendment, but he is fighting a lawsuit brought by the Fair Elections Legal Network, a national voting rights organization, claiming Scott’s clemency process is “wholly arbitrary” and leaves millions of people’s voting rights up to the “unrestrained discretion” of elected officials. In legal filings, the group has asked Scott to create a new system to restore voting rights to Floridians.
A district court ordered Scott in February to create a new clemency system, finding that the process is politically and racially biased and does not pass constitutional muster. But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals stayed that ruling in April, allowing the current process to stand, at least until the midterm election. “The governor has broad discretion to grant and deny clemency, even when the applicable regime lacks any standards,” Judge Stanley Marcus wrote in the order.
Since Scott took office, each of the 3,200 people who have had their voting rights restored have had to go in front of him and the three other members of his cabinet who make up Florida’s Clemency Board. The panel meets four times a year, and petitioners are given just a few minutes to plead their case.
Some applicants for clemency, like Takesha Tyler, get lucky, and their journey to Tallahassee pays off when the board restores their rights. Others have to respond to probing questions about their criminal history, traffic violations, how often they go to church, and whether all of their children have the same mother. A majority of applicants are denied, often leaving the Capitol building dejected as they realize they may have lost their only opportunity to ever cast a ballot again.
Amendment 4 would take that power out of the hands of elected officials. Citizens convicted of violent sexual assault or murder would still have to petition the board for clemency, but the right to vote would be automatically restored to most people when they finish their sentence and pay off all fines.
Experts say it’s not clear what kind of impact the change would have on future elections.
“We don’t really know what the political impact would be,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project. “How many people would go out and register to vote and take advantage of their rights? How many of them would show up? Who they would vote for? There’s a lot of speculation about how the votes might play out, but we’ve never really seen this large a group all at once regain their right to vote.”
Still, it seems likely the amendment will benefit Democrats. A 2010 study published in the American Sociological Review found that from 1972 to 2000, an estimated 70 percent of people with felony convictions would have supported Democrats, and Democratic politicians have been more supportive than Republicans of overturning disenfranchisement laws during the last few decades.
Nevertheless, at a time when Republican lawmakers have been pushing other forms of voter suppression like voter ID laws and purges of the voter rolls, many conservatives are supportive of Amendment 4. That’s because FRRC has been able to cast the movement as an issue of fairness like other struggles for equal rights.
“A hundred years ago, women were granted the right to vote and I don’t think the debate at the time was whether they were more likely to vote Democratic or Republican, but was this the right thing to do,” Mauer said. As a result, the movement has support from the types of conservatives who have partnered with Democrats on criminal justice reform in recent years, like the Koch brothers and their businesses.
“We believe that when individuals have served their sentences and paid their debts as ordered by a judge, they should be eligible to vote,” Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries, said in a statement when the Koch-connected Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce (which he also chairs) announced its decision.
To win conservative support, FRRC leaders have avoided discussing race, including disenfranchisement’s disproportionate impact on African Americans. Instead, they remind voters that numerically, there are more disenfranchised Floridians who are white. Experts say that strategy is very intentional. “They made a political calculation that to gain the 60 percent of the vote they need, the racial justice argument isn’t their strongest suit,” Mauer said.
Unlike many other states, Florida’s disenfranchisement law was written into the state constitution, making it harder than a simple legislative fix to overturn. That’s also why, despite mass support for second chances, advocates didn’t successfully lobby for an amendment to appear on the ballot until 2018. Mauer said there are many reasons why those advocates were finally successful this year.
“Partly, they’ve tried everything else,” he said. “Partly, there’s a substantial amount of money now to run a campaign that wasn’t there any time in the last 20 years. These things are very expensive.” He also said that increasing attention on voting rights has helped the movement gain broader attention and allowed a restoration amendment to qualify for the ballot for the first time in history.
While litigation and certain governors, including Florida’s Crist back when he was still in office, have tried to chip away at the disenfranchisement law over the years, nothing has had the type of support or money behind it that the movement this year has generated.
If Amendment 4 passes, experts say that the three other states with lifetime voting bans — Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia — are likely to reconsider their policies. A success in Florida would add to the growing momentum over the last couple of decades to overturn disenfranchisement, Mauer said. Twenty-three states have loosened their felon disenfranchisement laws in some way since 1997, according to the Sentencing Project.
For FRRC organizers, the approval of Amendment 4 would mean the end of feeling like “second-class citizens.” Many said that even before November, being involved in this movement has restored their hope.
“It’s empowering to see and talk to so many people who know that this system doesn’t work as well as it should, and that we’re all coming together to try and change a broken policy,” Neil Volz said.
A thoughtful expression came across his face as he pondered what he will do when he casts his first ballot in Florida.
He said that vote will be emblematic of so much more than finally seeing his own felony conviction behind him. The movement to restore the right of felons to vote, Volz said, has allowed him “to connect with people from different walks of life and from different places in the state and realize that there’s a lot more that we have in common in terms of moving forward and changing this policy that’s broken.”
The success of the movement so far has been surprising even to Desmond Meade, who said that not all that long ago the goal seemed unattainable. Over the years, even in moments of profound doubt, he said he was always driven to fight against what he feels to be the unjust restriction of his civil rights.
Thinking about how, as of November, the final barriers that have held back his career and made him feel less than whole may be lifted, makes him so overwhelmed with emotion that for a few seconds, he’s at a rare loss for words.
“I have overcome quite a lot of obstacles, going from homelessness to becoming an attorney graduating law school,” he said. This burly man, who has stared down challenges from drug addiction to being on the brink of suicide, now is on cusp of removing the final barrier that has held him back.
“Me not being able to practice [or vote] reminds me that I still have a hurdle to get over,” he said.
This story was published with the support of a fellowship from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Ira A.Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.