When John Legend rolled up to Maynard Evans High School in a black SUV, window down, arm outstretched in a wave, high school students gathered near the parking lot reacted about the way you’d expect.
Screams of shock and joy filled the air as phones shot out of the pockets of kids hoping to snap a frame of the musician and actor.
“Is anybody else shaking?” junior Rosie Rodriguez asked her friends after chasing the car.
It’s not normal to have such star power — a Grammy, Oscar, Tony and Emmy award winner — pack an Orlando high school auditorium. It’s not normal to have the atmosphere of a concert permeate a rally to raise awareness for a Florida constitutional ballot measure.
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But Wednesday was no ordinary political event. And few things have been normal about the campaign to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons, said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. (People convicted of murder or sex crimes would not be eligible to regain their rights if the measure passes.)
“What we’ve seen in the Amendment 4 campaign has been something that Florida has never seen before,” Meade said in a pre-concert press conference with Legend in the school’s choir room. “Over one million Florida voters signed a petition that said, ‘It is time to fix this broken system.’ ”
The movement to reform Florida’s notoriously stringent rights restoration process was grassroots from the start. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a bipartisan outfit led by convicted felons of all political persuasions, painstakingly collected more than 800,000 citizens’ signatures — without touting any major political endorsements — to qualify for the 2018 ballot.
But as Nov. 6 draws closer, supporters are pulling out all the stops to ensure the measure gets the required 60 percent approval and is added to Florida’s Constitution. They even recruited Legend to knock on doors around Orlando before the rally.
“They were surprised to see me,” Legend said to laughs at the press conference.
Wednesday’s event also featured some emotional moments. Before Legend performed, the crowd assembled in the auditorium was treated to a screening of “Let My People Vote,” a short documentary film about Meade’s advocacy efforts. The film shows Meade recruiting an older man in Tampa to vote in the 2016 election. When Meade and the man get to the polls, they learn he’s ineligible to vote because of a decades-old conviction for driving with a suspended license.
“Pops was ready, man,” a distraught Meade says in the film as he struggles through tears to process the news. “He was ready. And he was happy.”
If Amendment 4 passes, well over one million nonviolent offenders like the man Meade led to the polls that day will have their voting rights restored. That eye-popping number drew Legend to Orlando.
“There are very few Americans that don’t have family members who have been through the system,” Legend said. “As much as we think it’s certain neighborhoods, it’s certain folks, it’s really all of us.”
Legend’s political message excited the crowd of almost 1,000 students, faculty and local activists nearly as much as the three songs he performed: Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and two of his own hits, “Ordinary People” and “All of Me.”
Cassidi Cotton, a 15-year-old sophomore at Evans High School said she was eager to hear Legend talk about the ballot initiative . Even though she’s not old enough to vote, Cotton said neither of her parents can vote because of felony convictions.
“My parents aren’t political,” Cotton said. “I still think even if they’re not, they should have the right.”
Amendment 4 has polled relatively well in recent surveys, drawing more than 70 percent support in some, and no real opposition has mobilized. Organizations across the ideological spectrum — including the Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners — are supporting it.
But 60 percent support is a steep threshold to meet, particularly during a year with so much partisan intrigue. Many top Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, oppose the measure. And Amendment 4 is one of a dozen constitutional amendments on the ballot.
“This ballot is going to be a bit overwhelming as it is,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “It’s possible people could have ballot fatigue and just vote for some top-ticket races.”
If proponents can make voters as excited about Amendment 4 as Evans High School students were Wednesday, perhaps it has a chance.
“To have someone like John come down and use his platform to get the message out is truly amazing,” said Brett Ramsden, a convicted felon and supporter of Amendment 4. “If someone who is as busy as he is can take time out of their life to help this movement, what does that say for the average person?”
This story was updated to clarify that people convicted of murder or sex crimes would not be eligible to have their rights automatically restored.