Florida Politics

Diverse donors fund final push in campaign to win voting rights for Florida felons

The bright red tour bus has been to Belle Glade, Naples and the Keys.

Emblazoned with the words “Let my people VOTE,” it’s a big, rolling symbol of the campaign to pass Amendment 4 that would restore the right to vote to an estimated 1.5 million convicted felons in Florida.

Years of grass-roots organizing by supporters will soon reach the finish line as millions of Florida voters decide the fate of the amendment. It requires a supermajority of 60 percent approval to become law in a midterm election dominated by hard-fought contests for governor and U.S. senator.

Approval would end Florida’s long-standing outlier status as the state with the most people permanently barred from voting because of a felony conviction. Florida is one of four states that permanently disenfranchise felons from voting.

In a year when voters face a dizzying array of a dozen ballot questions, many testing their patience by merging several unrelated subjects into a single all-or-nothing proposition, supporters of Amendment 4 say it has been a challenge getting an uncluttered message to voters.

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A tour bus promotes Amendment 4. Special to the Tampa Bay Times

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But strong financial support from donors, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, has paid for a more visible campaign in recent weeks, including $5 million in advertising on TV in English and Spanish and on social media.

One TV ad features Gary Winston, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor who now operates a private law practice in South Florida.

Leading out-of-state donors include Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, League of Conservation Voters, Texas psychologist Laurie Michaels, and the Open Philanthropy Action Fund of Palo Alto, Calif.

Political support has come from such diverse groups as Catholic bishops, the Christian Coalition of America, veterans, NFL stars such as Warrick Dunn, entertainer John Legend and a political committee funded by the conservative Koch brothers.

Amendment 4 would restore the right to vote to convicted felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including probation and payment of restitution, while excluding those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.

“Folks seem to know about it, and they seem to be supportive,” said Desmond Meade of Oviedo, a lawyer who lost his right to vote following a felony drug conviction and who has led a pro-amendment effort known as Second Chances.

Meade’s face is prominently featured among a montage of faces on the side of the big red bus.

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Tampa lawyer Richard Harrison, the leader of a group he created to oppose Amendment 4, says the proposal faces an uphill climb with voters.

Relying mostly on TV appearances and opinion columns to spread his vote-no message, Harrison argues that Amendment 4 is too broadly worded and treats violent and non-violent criminals the same.

“It just goes too far with blanket restoration,” Harrison said. “I think a lot of people are going to see the word ‘felon’ and they’re going to vote no.”

Harrison founded Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy in 2017.

Harrison describes regularly finding expressions of opposition on social media platforms and said the multitude of ballot questions is a potential problem, too.

“I think a lot of people are going to default to voting no on everything,” Harrison said. “I think a lot of people are going to get frustrated.”

Harrison noted that the legalization of medical marijuana in Florida failed on its first try and it, too, was first on a midterm election ballot in 2014.

“The 60 percent threshold is a tough hurdle, and it should be,” he said.

Keith den Hollander, national field director for the Christian Coalition of America, wrote an op-ed piece in support of the amendment for the Fort Myers News-Press.

He described Florida’s “broken system” and wrote: “I am so glad that the redemption that we experience as Christians isn’t that kind of redemption. ... Much as we see in the Bible, once a debt is paid, we are restored into a right relationship with God. Along with being in a right relationship, we should also be fully restored to the rights and privileges that come with that relationship.”

Former pro football players Warrick Dunn and Anquan Boldin co-authored an opinion column in favor of Amendment 4 along with former NBA player Grant Hill and former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy.

“Most of these returning citizens are non-violent offenders, or they have grown older and aged out of crime,” they wrote. “Many have only one conviction. Many were convicted of offenses at relatively young ages when they were entirely different people. All have paid their debt to society. Do we want Florida to stand for permanent disenfranchisement of people who make mistakes and pay their debt to society? Or do Floridians across the political spectrum and every demographic believe in second chances and the restoration of rights?”

Under Florida’s current system, convicted felons must wait for at least five years after completing their sentences before they can apply for the restoration of their voting rights.

The process known as clemency is largely controlled by one person — the governor — who must be on the prevailing side of any case.

Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, remains the most visible defender of the existing system. His opponent, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, supports Amendment 4.

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The candidates for governor also clash on the issue, with Democrat Andrew Gillum in support and Republican Ron DeSantis opposed.

“I think it’s wrong to automatically restore rights to felons who’ve committed very serious crimes,” DeSantis said Wednesday in his second televised debate with Gillum. “I want people to be redeemed. But you’ve got to prove that you’re getting back with the law.”

Gillum said restoring voting rights to felons would help to make them full-fledged citizens and reduce the chance that they will commit more crimes.

“If you have done your time, and you’ve paid your debt to society, you ought to be able to re-enter society and have your constitutional right to vote and to work here in this state,” Gillum said.

Meade, the Amendment 4 leader, said the surest sign that the proposal will succeed is that more than 800,000 Florida voters signed the petitions that were required to get the question on the ballot in the first place.

“This has been a tried-and-true citizens’ initiative,” Meade said. “If the people put it on the ballot, they’re going to vote for it.”

This story was updated Nov. 7, 2018, to delete a reference that said former Miami-Dade prosecutor Gary Winston had lost his right to vote. He did not.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.



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