Voting Booths

When Neil Volz was gathering signatures to put voting rights for felons on the ballot in Florida, he made the case to everyone he met—including at Trump rallies. It’s a seemingly unlikely audience for an issue often cast as progressive, but Volz is also an unlikely leader of the charge. A Republican Hill staffer-turned lobbyist for Jack Abramoff—the one-time kingpin of D.C. lobbying—Volz was convicted of a felony when he plead guilty to lavishing trips and gifts upon a member of Congress in exchange for sponsoring legislation.

When Volz moved to Florida, he found himself in the same position as the 1.5 million other residents who have completed a sentence but are not allowed to vote. Not long after, he met Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The two started working to win back voting rights for the state’s returning citizens.

Since Florida’s constitution disenfranchises its felon population, the initiative that Meade and Volz pushed for was a constitutional amendment. Amendment 4, as it appeared on the 2018 ballot, automatically restored voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence, except murderers and sex offenders.

On Nov. 6, the amendment passed with 64% percent support. While felon voting is often seen as a liberal cause, garnering so much support in purple Florida means the motion won plenty of Republican votes. Along with three anti-gerrymandering proposals that passed in red and purple states in the midterms, it’s passage signals that Republican voters may not be as gung-ho about voter suppression as their elected leaders are.

While other states have passed similar reforms in recent years, Florida’s initiative is remarkable because of its reach: it enfranchises more people than any single measure since the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Florida’s criminally disenfranchised population has ballooned to represent more than a quarter of the country’s 6.1 million people who can’t vote because of a felony record. Volz and others who’ve been out campaigning told me that many people they talk to know someone impacted by the law. That’s not surprising given the data: One in ten Floridian adults have a felony conviction. While black Americans are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated nationally, the majority of Floridians with felony convictions are actually white. “Florida uses its prison system as a substitute for treatment for drug addiction and mental health counseling,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of ACLU Florida.

The provision of Florida’s constitution that prohibits felons from voting has an ugly, racist history. After the Civil War, white legislators enacted “black codes” that increased the penalties for minor crimes, which effectively turned many of Florida’s recently freed black residents into convicts. In 1868, Florida re-wrote its Constitution, and took voting rights away from anyone with a felony record. Those decisions had sticking power. Today, one in five black Floridians are unable vote because of a criminal record.

Before Amendment 4, there was a system by which people could ask for their voting rights back. But it involved waiting years and appearing in Tallahassee to make an appeal to Florida’s governor (the Washington Monthly covered this back in 2001). The state’s current executive, Rick Scott, restored those rights to 3,000 people during his eight years in office. His predecessor, by contrast, restored voting rights to 150,000 in just four years. Scott succinctly captured the ethos of the process when he said—in the middle of one clemency hearing—“There’s no standard. We can do whatever we want.”

That this amendment’s champions made an ardently non-partisan case was key to its success in 2018. “When you hear voting, you automatically think political, but we want to talk about something deeper than that,” Meade told the Orlando Sentinel’s Editorial Board.  “We want you to throw away everything that you’ve heard about felon disenfranchisement.”

Florida is a perennially purple state, and one of the most contested in every presidential election. If Republican voters had seen it as a Democratic wish-list item, the measure probably wouldn’t have passed. It added credibility that Volz, whose face is enlarged and shrink-wrapped around the Amendment 4 campaign bus, spoke publicly about his conservative politics.

Despite recent support from conservative groups and a few Republican leaders, restoring voting rights to felons is often seen as a boon for progressives. Because black Americans are most affected—and black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats—the logic goes that enfranchising felons will grow the number of blue voters. But the reality isn’t as clean cut.

The ex-felon population is not ideologically uniform. “When I go into prisons and talk with people, I hear the same range of opinions about wars and taxes and abortion that I do on the outside,” said Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.

It’s also not clear that this newly enfranchised population will turnout at the same rate other voters do. A 2014 study of New York, New Mexico, and North Carolina found that roughly 10 percent of recently released felons voted in presidential elections. Yet elections in Florida are decided by paper-thin margins. If just a tenth of the 1.5 million new voters cast ballots, and they cast slightly more ballots for Democrats relative to the general population, it could make a difference.

For that reason, while support for criminal justice reform has grown dramatically among some Republican leaders and state legislatures in the last decade, it often stops short of felon voting rights. Steven Teles, a political science Professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote the book on how conservatives turned against mass incarceration. He told me that voting rights are generally where the conservatives’ ideological interest in reform “is in the most tension with the partisan interests of the Republican party.”

That tension is reflected in the mixed conservative support for Amendment 4. The most high-profile Republicans in the state were among its detractors, including Rick Scott and Governor-elect Ron DeSantis. But the Representative for Florida’s 26th district, and a couple other GOP representatives in Florida’s state house, have supported the amendment, as well as the conservative Christian Coalition and the Koch-backed Freedom Partners.

Republican leaders lag behind their constituents, who supported the amendment. That’s also reflected in the passage of reform proposals in Michigan, Colorado, and Missouri to take gerrymandering out of the hands of state legislatures. In those cases, voters chose to give the power of re-districting to independent commissions or non-partisan experts, who are less likely to construct noodle-y districts that dilute the votes of racial, religious, or political minorities. Those votes for ensuring—or, in the case of Amendment 4, expanding—voting rights stand in contrast to the drumbeat of new measures, introduced by Republican officials, to restrict voting. The efforts to suppress Native American turnout in North Dakota and black turnout in Georgia are cases in point.

In several states, Republican voters have signaled that they don’t want to be the party that wins by quashing voting rights. It’s time that their leaders listen to them.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Grace Gedye is reporter for CalMatters. She was an editor at Washington Monthly from 2018 to 2021.