Desmond Meade thinks he may have talked to more Floridians about felon voting rights than anyone else. Since 2009, he has put thousands of miles on his car each year, driving to every corner of the state talking to people about felon disenfranchisement.
By the time a formal campaign to amend the Florida Constitution and restore felon voting rights ended in 2018, it was clear to him which arguments worked with the largest share of people. Among them: second chances and redemption are moral and national values that Americans have a collective duty to uphold, and making way for redemption is the right thing to do.
Eventually, Meade, who is black, and Neil Volz, a white man convicted of felonies in connection with the former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, connected with a bipartisan funding and support network. It included the Koch brothers. And the redemption narrative — one that pushed the racist origins and racially disparate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws just beyond the spotlight — won a whopping 64 percent of deeply purple Florida’s votes in the November referendum on Amendment 4.
“The messaging was totally organic, totally grassroots,” said Meade, a convicted felon who after his release from prison earned a law degree. "It wasn’t a black or white thing, a conservative or liberal thing. It was a real people thing, people understood.”
But just as the campaign settled into victory, both the politics and the policy of felon voting have become unsettled again.
On Thursday, a committee of the Florida House of Representatives voted along party lines to advance a bill that could bar from the ballot box many of the estimated 1.5 million convicted felons who just regained the franchise.
Now the issue of voting rights for ex-felons is back in doubt. It looks as if the limited talk about race and partisanship during the Amendment 4 campaign created space for opponents to engage in debates about the bill's language without attending to the racial impact of any legislative tweaks.
An example is Rep. Jamie Grant, a Republican who represents Tampa in the Florida House, who says he absolutely believes in second chances and redemption but is sponsoring a House bill requiring felons who have completed their jail terms to pay all fines and fees associated with their case before regaining the right to vote.
"I also took an oath ... and swore to uphold the fidelity of the Constitution,” he said.
Grant, who describes himself as a "recovering lawyer," spoke at Thursday’s Florida House committee hearing in the manner of a Southern barrister delivering a case’s closing argument. At points, his voice soared. At times, his language turned to high-minded, philosophical ideas. At others, it leaned toward the incurious.
On Thursday, Grant said that he’d been asked repeatedly if he knows which Floridians would lose their right to vote due to his bill, or how many would be affected. He said he does not.
“I’ve said, no,” he said, “I don’t want to know the impact of this because it’s irrelevant ... If truth and fact and intellectual honesty do not drive our discussion of things related to the Constitution, we have no hope.”
No one on the time-crunched House committee questioned Grant’s assertion. In reality, most of the 1.5 million Florida residents who regained the right to vote when Amendment 4 passed are white, but it disproportionately affected black residents. Felon disenfranchisement prevented almost 20 percent of Florida’s black adults from exercising the right to vote.
Florida is also a state that maintains more than 115 different types of fines, fees and surcharges which can be assessed against defendants in court cases, including those involving traffic violations, according to an analysis by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, based in New York. That’s the second-largest number of fines, fees and surcharges assessed anywhere in the country. A national analysis of financial conditions placed on voting found that they do curtail the rights of people of color more deeply, according to research recently published in the Vanderbilt University Law Review.
“It’s hard for me to say what the legislature’s intent is,” said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, “but what I can say is it’s clear what the effects of all this will be, and who will be most deeply affected because of the relationship between race and income, race and policing, race and employment.”
Grant and other lawmakers who back the bill have said they are simply doing their jobs, putting much needed detail on the bones of what the voters approved. To them, the amendment’s call for voting rights restoration “upon completion of...sentences, including prison, parole and probation,” includes any fines or fees assessed by the court at sentencing. They point out that Amendment 4 advocates agreed when the measure went before the Florida Supreme Court for required approval. They had to, Grant said, because of other features of Florida's constitution.
To Grant, a Republican interested in criminal justice reform, known as a fan of data and tech in government and willing to, "stipulate to the atrocities," of Florida's past, avoiding details which might expose the racial or political impact of the pending bill is the right thing to do.
"The conversation about how we get to justice," Grant said, "and how we assure that some one’s skin color has no effect on their life is a meaningful conversation which we absolutely should be having ….but what I can’t do is pull the rug out from beneath the voters. The amendment language clearly states, 'after they served all the terms of their sentence.'"
Florida's atrocities, according to Grant, include the racist origins of gun control, the treatment of the Groveland four and union efforts to staunch school choice.
In most cases, felon disenfranchisement laws were implemented during Reconstruction by public officials who made no secret of racist goals. The federal government would not let states back into the union until they approved a U.S. constitutional amendment giving black men the right to vote. In Florida, during an 1868 debate, one lawmaker linked felon disenfranchisement to preventing the state from becoming “n-----ized.”
“That history, that overtly racist history is a part of this story,” Ebenstein said. “It can’t really be extracted. And that’s not something we, or I think the folks behind Amendment 4, would ever try to do ... But I do think that people become numb to the history and current statistics.”
In the late 1990s, it was a study from the Sentencing Project — a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform — that for the first time made it clear millions of Americans had been permanently stripped of the franchise by state policies governing voting by ex-felons.
At the time, the laws stripped about 3.9 million U.S. citizens of the vote and a full 13 percent of all black men, the study found. Like Florida, most of the states that permanently disenfranchised felons were in the South and decided to do so just after the Civil War. Several disenfranchised those convicted of specific crimes — those that lawmakers claimed were more likely to be committed by black Americans, such as rape and theft.
“I think the numbers we produced in 1998 were apparently pretty shocking for many people,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said. “Almost overnight, we saw a lot of campaigns and action.”
At the Project, they don’t use “second chances” arguments because they don’t concede Americans should be disenfranchised in the first place, Mauer said. In most Western democracies, voting is allowed in prison or rights are restored immediately upon release.
“I don’t mean that to be critical," he said. "The Amendment 4 folks accomplished something great, a massive thing. But there are dangers in the second-chance argument when we have a criminal justice system which, when it comes to race, is fundamentally unfair.”
Over the last two decades, most states have moved away from outright lifetime bans on felon voting. At least a dozen bills have been introduced in the Florida Legislature in the last decade. Most never got out of committee. But, Amendment 4 won more than 64 percent of the electorate’s votes.
Race and voting are not easily bifurcated. But, where Amendment 4 is concerned, supporters and researchers believe that they found the right formula to come close.
“I think the incredible thing about Amendment 4 was that it was not run as a partisan campaign and they did not, honestly, even focus on racial disparities,” said Michael Morse, a political scientist and law student who studies felon disenfranchisement.
Amendment 4 advocates made Trump rallies a target. They had both black and white ex-felons, Republicans and Democrats, speaking on behalf of the change.
“I am not trying to stake out a position that we should never talk about race,” Morse explained, “but I think that in previously talking about disparities and race, we may have unfortunately presented a picture, contributed to the idea, that criminal justice reform is only for black people.”
While the organized opposition to Amendment 4 was almost nonexistent in Florida before the November election, the state’s newly elected governor, Ron DeSantis, made his distaste for felon re-enfranchisement known and called on the legislature to intervene after Amendment 4 passed. DeSantis is a Trump ally who also repeatedly made comments described as racist during his campaign.
Other politicians opposed to extending voting rights to ex-felons have publicly danced around the topic and chosen to instead play upon stereotypes and suspicions. This was evident in a claim Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made during the 2016 presidential election, said Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
In a conversation unrelated to ex-felon voting, Cruz told radio host Hugh Hewitt that “the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats."
Ex-felons are less likely to register and vote than other adults, even in states where they can, Meredith and Morse’s research has shown. Among those who do register, the vast majority, but not all, of black ex-felons register as Democrats. White and other nonwhite ex-felons are divided between the major parties and no party affiliation at all.
“It’s pretty clear, people often overestimate how African American the ex-felon population is,” Meredith said. “The majority of people in prison in almost every state are white. But, a disproportionate share are black. Somehow, that’s been lost.”
In Florida, those race-neutral arguments for Amendment 4 worked so well that when Morse collected copies of millions of ballots cast in the November election (voter identity withheld), he spotted something telling. About 40 percent of people who voted for DeSantis backed Amendment 4, according to his preliminary analysis.
“Now we have gone back to partisanship," Morse said, "a party line vote seems to be coming.”
The House bill approved Thursday by the State Affairs Committee will next go to the Florida House Judiciary committee. If it passes there, it will go to the full floor of the Republican-controlled Florida House of Representatives for a vote. A similar bill is working its way through committees in the Republican-dominated Senate.