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On Tuesday, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of people with past felony convictions.
Commentary

Florida’s Election Shows the True Promise of Restoring Voting Rights

With the passage of Amendment 4, more than a million people intimately affected by the criminal justice system have become more empowered to shape it.

In one of Tuesday’s most-watched races, Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum lost a bid to become Florida’s first black governor by less than 100,000 votes. In the same state, incumbent Democratic Sen. In the same state, incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson trailed in his re-election bid by a narrower count, though he stopped short of conceding.

Yet more than 60 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to transform one of the nation’s harshest state felony disenfranchisement schemes, restoring the vote to many of its 1.4 million residents with past criminal convictions.

That latter win expanded the Florida electorate by an estimated 1 million new voters, many of whom are predicted to favor Democratic candidates, and a small fraction of whom could have easily swung the Senate and gubernatorial races.

According to 2016 data from The Sentencing Project, more than 1 in every 4 people disenfranchised in Florida is black, and more than 1 in 5 black people in Florida is disenfranchised. By some estimates, continued disenfranchisement paired with state trends in mass incarceration were predicted to soon yield a Florida “democracy” with 40 percent of black men barred from the ballot box. Forty percent.

Yesterday, the state seemingly veered off that course to chart another. And even as Nelson’s and Gillum’s losses are painful defeats for Democrats, the promise of a more diverse and progressive electoral community could signal a changing tide.

But we miss the point and sell ourselves short to interpret felony disenfranchisement reform as purely partisan. Florida voters certainly didn’t see it that way, as Amendment 4 was projected to pass with more than 60 percent of the vote long before the close statewide races could be called.

And whatever we try to extrapolate from the race, age, class, or geographic backgrounds of those enfranchised by the new law, they all share one key characteristic not found on a census form: Each and every one has experienced criminal conviction and imprisonment. They have withstood the challenges of re-entry and discrimination and may be struggling through them still. And now, the power to vote brings with it the power to help remake one of the most powerful and complex forms of state control: criminal justice.

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Florida was not alone yesterday. In Louisiana, an even greater share of voters—64 percent—approved another significant criminal justice reform: ending the state’s practice of allowing non-unanimous juries to convict defendants at trial. The constitutional amendment was championed by a grassroots campaign largely waged by formerly incarcerated activists. It follows action by the state Legislature in May easing Louisiana’s own felony disenfranchisement law. Though that law will not go into effect until March 2019, organizers of that re-enfranchisement effort were also central to last night's successful jury reform campaign; they now look forward to the possibilities ahead when they can vote, too.

“Beyond individual voting rights,” Bruce Reilly, deputy director of New Orleans organization V.O.T.E., told me this summer, “the bigger project of ending disenfranchisement is building a politically-empowered community of people who have been to prison and can bring that experience to the decisions they make at the polls.”

Florida didn’t achieve full enfranchisement with this week’s vote. It remains unclear exactly how many of the 1.4 million disenfranchised citizens who have completed their sentences will now be eligible to vote, because Amendment 4 explicitly excludes anyone convicted of a murder or felony sex offense. The reform also does nothing to change the voting ineligibility of about 91,000 people living in the community while on probation or parole.

But just a few years ago, Florida was defending its right to sentence 13-year-olds to life without parole. Florida today remains a state where countless children have been saddled with felony records and permanently lost the right to vote before they were old enough to try it out. And now, Florida’s devastating system of mass incarceration is significantly less empowered to shape the state electorate, while the people most intimately familiar with the far-reaching impact of that system have become significantly more empowered to shape it. Perhaps that is the greatest cause for hope.

Jennifer Rae Taylor is a Senior Attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. She may be reached at jtaylor@eji.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary erroneously stated that Louisiana's constitutional amendment ballot measure was voted on by previously disenfranchised persons whose voting rights were restored by the legislature in May. In fact, they did not vote in Tuesday's election and the restoration of their voting rights does not take effect until March 2019. The post has also been updated to reflect the latest developments in Florida's governor and senator races.