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Saturday, 13 May 2017 02:00

Repealing the Jim Crow law that keeps 1.5 million Floridians from voting.

Written by Lulu Friesdat | Alternet

A seismic political battle that could send shockwaves all the way to the White House was launched last week in Florida. On Thursday, the Voting Rights Amendment, a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to non-violent individuals with felony convictions cleared a major hurdle when the state Supreme Court unanimously determined that the measure is constitutional and can be placed on the 2018 ballot, if organizers can collect enough signatures.

In Florida, a felony conviction means the loss of voting rights for life in most cases, making it one of the most restrictive states in the country. “There are a lot of people that are being excluded from voting,” says Jon Mills, the attorney who successfully presented the initiative before the court. The Sentencing Project estimates that 10 percent of Florida’s voting population is unable to vote, and close to 1.5 million people could have their voting rights restored if the amendment passes.

The felony population is disproportionately made up of people of color. Black men and women are five to six times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated; Latino men and women are two to three times more likely to see prison time than whites. Many of them are young people ensnared in the war on drugs. Organizers like Desmond Meade of Floridians for a Fair Democracy point out that the amendment will cover those that have completed their sentences, probation and parole, but not those convicted of murder or sexual assault. He says those who have done their time have paid their debt to society and that the issue is not one of politics, but of fairness.

Meade is making the moral argument for the amendment, but it may be the political one that motivates supporters. Felons traditionally vote Democratic, with one study estimating they would turnout at 35% and vote 70% Democratic. That could put 367,000 votes in the Democratic column in presidential elections. Compare that to Trump’s margin of victory of 112,911 votes in the Florida 2016 presidential election, and it becomes clear how the amendment could be a game-changer for the whole country.

A Heavy Lift

Getting the prize of Florida’s 29 electoral votes won't be easy. Supporters of the measure must collect over 750,000 signatures in order for the initiative to appear on the ballot. Organizers say they have 100,000 on hand from the push that got them to the Supreme Court. But it took over a year to collect those 100,000 signatures. Now they must collect six times that amount in eight months to make the Feb. 1, 2018, deadline for the November ballot.

Meade says he is not deterred. "I love challenges like that," he told me in a lengthy phone interview. "I was a one-man show working the entire state of Florida. Matter of fact, in the last couple years, I put over 157,000 miles on my car."

Blacks trying to participate in U.S. elections have historically been asked to perform Herculean tasks to attain a right that was freely given to white men: the right to vote. From having to read and interpret the constitution to paying hefty fees known as “poll taxes,” to undertaking the civil rights movement itself, blacks have consistently been forced to “demonstrate” that they deserve to participate in elections. In some ways the tortuous requirements for this ballot initiative are reminiscent of those past burdens. Not only must organizers collect three quarters of a million signatures, the signatures must come proportionally from 14 different districts across Florida. Petitions can be downloaded from the group's website, and mailed in, but most will wind up being collected in person. If supporters can cross the signature threshold, they are still not across the finish line. The ballot measure will need to be approved by a 60% vote in order to successfully amend the state’s constitution.

Andrea Miller says she is up for the challenge. The executive director of the grassroots advocacy group People Demanding Action, describes her organization as "very tiny" and admits, "We don’t have any resources." But she says, "If not us, who?" She believes the best hope for attaining the signatures lies in working with African-American advocacy groups and mega-churches in Florida, and threw down the gauntlet for them to help. "We are going to go to the NAACP and the African-American churches and make sure that they are involved in this. They are going to do something they haven’t done since the '60s. They are going to remember who they are.”

If progressive groups that have sprung up around the country decide to take up the cause, they could exponentially expand available resources while building out their own organizations. A chapter of Indivisible in North Lake Florida has already taken up the call and tweeted a photo of their team gathering signatures.

Requests for comment for this article to other groups including Our RevolutionBrand New CongressJustice Democrats and Our States went unanswered. But perhaps those organizations will also be motivated by the large lottery prize to send in the troops.

The 2018 Florida election could be a perfect storm for change if the initiative brings out extra voters to put Andrew Gillum over the top in his quest to be the next governor. The Tallahassee mayor, best known for fighting the gun lobby and other statewide efforts by Republicans to thwart local control, has made it clear he supports second chances for people with a criminal record. The state's right-wing incumbent, Gov. Rick Scott, faces term limits and cannot seek re-election. 

A History of Twists and Turns

Desmond Meade, the driving force behind the initiative, has traveled a road with twists and turns. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for illegal possession of a firearm. After his release, he faced homelessness and thoughts of suicide, but instead entered a drug rehabilitation program and went first to college, graduating summa cum laude, and then on to law school. He exemplifies the message of the voting restoration movement that people can change, and deserve second chances. Their motto #SayYestoSecondChances is so hopeful it dares to use 21 characters for a hashtag.

That unvarnished optimism is likely to run into some real-world politics before the campaign is through. Conservatives like Roger Clegg, president of the conservative advocacy group Center for Equal Opportunity, have long made the argument, "If you aren't willing to follow the law, you can't claim the right to make the law for everyone else." On occasion they have expressed their priorities more bluntly, as in 2004 when Marty Connors, then chairman of the Alabama Republican Party said, “As frank as I can be, we’re opposed to [restoring voting rights] because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.”

Connors’ quote hints at the darker origins of the laws preventing felons from voting; origins that were laid bare when a 1906 quote from Virginia State Senator Carter Glass surfaced, saying they intended to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor… in less than five years.”

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander discusses the parallels between the current criminal justice system and Jim Crow, the system of segregation and degradation of blacks that was in place in the South between 1877 and the mid 1960s. She argues that the prison label is in many respects more damaging than Jim Crow. “The criminalization and demonization of black men has turned the black community against itself, unraveling community and family relationships, decimating networks of mutual support, and intensifying the shame and self-hate experienced by the current pariah caste.”

Despite his hopeful outlook, Meade acknowledges the impact the restrictions he’s faced as an ex-felon have had on him. Last August, his wife Sheena ran for the Florida House of Representatives, and Meade was unable to vote for her. He says, “That was like a slap in the face, really reminding me I’m not a full citizen because I can’t have my voice heard.” He says it strengthened his resolve to push the initiative forward. A study by Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza hints at the rehabilitating effect that voting can have on ex-felons. “In our Minnesota data, voters … were about half as likely to be rearrested … as non-voters.”

It’s possible that Meade’s optimism is contagious. Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo has signed the petition, and the congressman is not alone. The ACLU has been a strong advocate for the amendment, with political director Kirk Bailey speaking out forcefully about moving Florida’s voting rules from the 19th to the 21st century. The Advancement Project’s national office is providing strategy support. Even the League of Women Voters, whose hallmark is caution, hosted an event to draw awareness to the campaign.

Meade says in general Americans support second chances, and the long-standing 2002 Harris poll confirms that 80% of Americans “favor restoring voting rights to former felons who have served their entire sentences.” He points out that because of the 60% support necessary for the measure to ultimately pass, it will need endorsements from across the political spectrum.

But he is not daunted. He tells me, “We collected signatures at Donald Trump rallies.” I asked how many. “I would definitely say at least over 100 at each one,” he replied. You’ve got to admit … that’s 'yuge.'

Link to original article from AlterNet

Lulu Friesdat is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist whose many news assignments include producing election coverage for MSNBC and editing with the CBS Evening News and Good Morning America. She received a Best Documentary award for directing her first feature-length documentary Holler Back — [not] Voting in an American Town, a film that explores systemic issues in our elections that discourage voter participation. Follow her on twitter @LuluFriesdat.

Read 2815 times Last modified on Sunday, 14 May 2017 14:14

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