Desmond Meade, right, is accompanied by his daughter, Xcellence Meade, center, and his wife, Sheena Meade, inside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office as he registers to vote after ex-felons regained their voting rights in the state Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
If you’re frustrated by the asinine and egregious level of gridlock in Washington, D.C., illustrated by the nearly four-week-long (and counting) government shutdown, you may be looking to fast-forward right through 2019 and get to November 2020. Nov. 3, 2020, to be exact. Election Day. The day when frustration is transformed into votes that do the work and the will of the people.
But that work and that will are not expressed without the courting of a few key swing states. And Florida, with 29 electoral votes, is the mother of them all. Come Nov. 3, 2020, Florida is expected to have some 1.6 million new voters, formerly incarcerated felons, who may swing an election.
While Florida Democrats mourned in November 2018 when Tallahassee mayor and FAMU alum Andrew Gillum lost his bid to become Florida’s first African-American governor in 20 years, they rejoiced over the passage of Amendment 4. The amendment grants previously incarcerated felons who have not been convicted of murder or sexual offenses eligibility to vote, pending their completion of the terms of their sentences. On Tuesday, Jan. 8, these ex-prisoners were allowed to begin registering to have their voting rights restored.
Previous offender turned barber and multibusiness owner Corey Duval says, “It means a lot to me, considering that it’s been about seven years since I was able to vote.”
Convicted of possession of a controlled substance and possession of a concealed weapon, Duval says that being eligible to register to vote is important because voting and using his voice matters to him.
Registration, however, is only the first step in what is expected to be a long process—a process that, Dr. Natasha V. Christie says, will require building legislative infrastructure and making sure databases at the Florida Department of Corrections and the state’s Division of Elections can communicate with each other. Christie, who is chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Florida, also says that there’s the possibility of legal and political challenges to the amendment, which some see as biased in favor of the Democratic Party.
“That’s a viable strategy,” Christie tells ESSENCE. “It’s politics, after all.”
Numbers from the Department of Corrections show that as of 2015 (the last year for which demographic statistics have been released), 93 percent of Florida state-prison inmates were men and 7 percent were women. Of the men, 49 percent were African American, 38 percent were white and 13 percent were Hispanic.
Christie says, “The literature suggests there isn’t a strong partisan preference if you’re looking at the entire felon population. However, if you’re looking at the African-American felon population, there is a stronger preference for the Democratic Party there.”
Christie adds that political leanings toward the Democratic Party among African-American voters are intensified when you consider that in the entire state of Florida, 27 percent of the Black population was disenfranchised.
History has shown that elections in Florida are often close and may be a key or even deciding factor in the outcome of a presidential contest, and may also play a role in the balance of power in Congress. The bitterness over the hanging chads of Bush v. Gore in 2000 is recalled every time there is a recount of any race in the state. That was most recently illustrated in Florida’s hotly contested gubernatorial and Senate races. Gillum lost to now-Gov. Ron DeSantis by a little more than 32,000 votes. Bill Nelson lost his long-held Senate seat to former Gov. Rick Scott by 10,000 votes. If you go back to the 2016 presidential contest, Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of state lost Florida’s winner-take-all electoral votes by some 113,000 votes. With 1.6 million eligible voters possibly being added to the rolls, Christie says, there is definitely the power to swing an election.
But that depends on the next steps, steps that will require Florida lawmakers to define which sex offenses make a felon ineligible to register to vote. Then there is the issue of fines and the completion of felons’ sentences. As the amendment is written, it is unclear whether a completed sentence requires the previous offender to have paid all fines and restitution connected with his or her case.
Christie said, “Depending on the cost, some individuals may not be eligible [to register to vote]. There’s still some administrative hoops to jump through to make it clearer and make it more possible for a larger number of individuals to actually be affected by this amendment.”
Despite the potential roadblocks and government holdups, Duval says that being granted the eligibility to register to vote is empowerment for the entire community of previously incarcerated felons.
“Some people who may have felt like they don’t matter in society, now that’s a boost for them,” he says. “We now have a voice. Not saying that we didn’t have a voice before, but now our voice is heard and we can make some moves.”
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