National News

A long, hot summer of building support to grant felons the right to vote

Posted July 22, 2018 6:06 p.m. EDT

TALLAHASSEE -- The fate of about 1.4 million people will be at stake in November as Florida voters decide whether most convicted felons should have the right to vote.

With the election less than four months away, supporters are organizing a statewide campaign to win voter approval of Amendment 4, which got on the ballot after an effective grass roots organizing effort that lasted several years.

But passage is far from assured in a deep purple and closely divided state where midterm or non-presidential elections typically draw low turnouts, where President Donald J. Trump remains popular, and where some voters may simply be turned off by a fatigue-inducing list of 13 ballot questions.

"Grass roots got us this far, and grass roots will get us across the finish line," said Desmond Meade, the public face of a campaign known as Second Chances, himself a former addict and convicted felon who holds a law degree but cannot vote. "People going around and having conversations with their friends. That has been the secret to our success."

Any voter-approved change to Florida's Constitution needs to win support of 60 percent of voters.

An icon of progressive politics who supports the proposal, former American Bar Association president Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, says that is too high a hurdle in a state Trump narrowly won two years ago.

"The Trump people are not going to be people who want to be humane toward people who have already served their time," D'Alemberte said. "I don't see it winning. I never thought it would win. I hope I'm wrong about that."

The money raised for a statewide campaign in support of Amendment 4 has never been broad-based, and it has slowed to a trickle in recent months.

Through the first week of July, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the supporters' fund-raising group, reported raising $5.5 million, but had about $300,000 in the bank, not nearly enough to pay for a statewide voter outreach effort.

Nearly $2 million in contributions came from the American Civil Liberties Union. Nearly $4 million in expenses went to a California company that hired petition gatherers to get signatures from registered voters -- the critical step in any Florida ballot initiative campaign.

By comparison, Voters in Charge, a political committee pushing passage of Amendment 3, to require local control of gambling, has raised $17.5 million and spent $6.7 million so far.

The Republican Party of Florida has endorsed eight of the 13 ballot questions, but took no position on Amendment 4.

People on both sides of the issue say a campaign to win voter approval is not visible enough during a long, hot summer when contests for U.S. Senate and governor are getting much of the attention.

"We need community organizations, pastors on pulpits, any form to appeal to people's sense of goodwill," said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "They need to do it more and frequently."

Rouson voiced fears that opponents would inject race into the debate with Willie Horton-style ads, a reference to a racially tinged ad tactic used by Republicans to discredit Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 race for president.

Studies have shown that Florida's felon disenfranchisement system has disproportionately affected African-Americans, but a majority of felons stricken from the voter rolls are white.

Rouson, who speaks often about his past addiction struggles, is a member of the Constitution Revision Commission. He once proposed a narrower version of Amendment 4 on the ballot, but withdrew it when others protested that it would confuse voters.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, assured skeptics that Amendment 4 will be promoted aggressively in the months ahead.

"A lot of things are in the works," Simon says. "It's July."

In Florida, proposed constitutional amendments are listed at the end of the ballot, a layout that tests the patience of voters who vote in person and not by mail.

"That's one of our burdens, to get people to vote the whole ballot," Simon says.

Another CRC member, Republican Don Gaetz of Niceville, a former state Senate president, opposes Amendment 4, calling it "too sweeping," and predicted it will fail.

"Restoration of felons' rights has to be sold. It has to be explained," Gaetz said. "You have to answer objections."

Gaetz, who said he speaks often to civic groups in support of the eight CRC ballot proposals, said he hears little talk about Amendment 4 in Northwest Florida -- an ominous sign, he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.