Florida Votes for Democracy

A supermajority of voters approved a change that will extend the franchise to more than 1 million people in a swing state where elections are regularly decided by razor-thin margins.

Terray Sylvester / Reuters

Last year, writing about the state that disenfranchised more of its voters than any other, I asked, “Will Florida banish the ghost of Jim Crow?” On Tuesday its voters did so, amending their state constitution to restore voting rights for convicted felons who’ve served their sentence, except those convicted of murder and some sex offenses.

This is a hugely consequential result. The change will extend the vote to more than 1 million Floridians. (The 2016 presidential vote in the state was determined by 112,911 votes. In 2012, the margin of victory was 74,309 votes. In 2000, it was 537 votes.)

African American voters will disproportionately benefit from the change, given their higher representation among heretofore disenfranchised felons. And the amendment will right a wrong first perpetrated after the Civil War, when white-supremacist legislators resisted the equal treatment of blacks.

Though their attempts to block the Fourteenth Amendment failed, and though the Reconstruction Act of 1867 forced Florida to add an article to its state constitution granting suffrage to all men, these legislators suppressed the black vote with educational requirements and a voting ban for convicted felons, knowing blacks had been and would be abused by the criminal-justice system. Florida’s constitution changed a century later, during the civil-rights era, but the blanket ban on voting by convicted felons remained, excepting only those given clemency.

The provision remained in the state’s constitution until yesterday, punishing people of all races who paid their debt to society, were released, and were asked to resume the duties of citizenship, from paying taxes to participation in a draft—but were still denied the right to vote. To end it, a supermajority was needed—and 64.4 percent of Florida voters backed the measure, after a campaign in which the Republican gubernatorial candidate took no position, the Democratic candidate supported the amendment, and outside groups including the ACLU and the Koch-affiliated Freedom Partners lent their support and formal endorsements.

Reporting from the victory party, Reason magazine’s C. J. Ciaramella quoted Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which sponsored the measure. “This was a campaign about inclusion,” he said. “Those numbers represented what happens when we come together along the lines of humanity and reach each other where we’re at. That’s what happens when we’re able to transcend partisan politics and bickering, when we’re able to transcend racial anxieties and discourse, when we’re able to come together as God’s children.”