This November, Florida voters will choose a new governor in one of the nation’s most contested—and consequential—races. But if they look to the bottom of the ballot, they will also be asked to decide whether the right to vote should be granted to 1.5 million former felons who live in the state. With Iowa and Kentucky, Florida is one of just three states in the nation to automatically and permanently keep anyone who has committed a felony from ever voting again. A grassroots movement headed by former felons seeks to change that.
Amendment Four’s two leading advocates and most dogged supporters make for strange bedfellows: Neil Volz, a white, conservative former congressional chief of staff who was sentenced to probation for his role in a lobbying scandal; and Desmond Meade, a black, formerly homeless man who served several years in prison for drug and weapon charges. Together, they are asking the state’s voters—citizens, they emphasize, just like them—for forgiveness.
“Returning citizens”—a term the movement’s organizers much prefer to felons—across the state are visiting churches, speaking at community events, and telling their neighbors about their experiences. It is in these heart-to-heart conversations, activists believe, that they can convince Floridians to vote not for a political issue, but for a fundamental value: “When a debt is paid, it’s paid,” as several organizers put it to me. It’s a value that activists at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) think has universal appeal. But the main problem, organizers told me, is simply spreading the word. The amendment would give all former felons, except for convicted murderers and sex offenders, the right to vote once they complete all terms of their sentence. To pass, at least 60 percent of the state’s voters must support it. And that means that several million Floridians will have to accept, on good faith alone, that people who have been convicted of serious crimes should be fully accepted back into their communities. That’s not always an easy ask.