HRDC director Paul Wright quoted on Amendment 4 in Florida
November 3 2018, 8:00 a.m.
STEFANIE ANGLIN IS a grandmother, business owner, and convicted felon, though when she’s out on the streets of Orlando, Florida, knocking on prospective voters’ doors, she introduces herself by the latter.
Then, she usually tells people that she can’t vote — along with 1.68 million other Florida residents who have felony convictions, 10 percent of the state’s adult population, and 1 in 5 African-Americans. Across the country, over 6 million people can’t vote because of felony convictions. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote; most restore voting rights at some point between release and the end of probation; only Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky disenfranchise for life all felons who have completed their sentences.
Felon disenfranchisement has a long history in the United States. Because the right to vote is not enshrined in the Constitution — and in fact, the 14th Amendment allows for it to be “abridged” in certain cases — felon disenfranchisement has remained one of the most effective ways to keep people, particularly African-Americans, from voting, and it was widespread across the country between Reconstruction and the civil rights era. Where it remains in place today, felon disenfranchisement joins a number of other measures — such as voter ID laws and voter purging — that effectively keep hundreds of thousands of people from exercising their right to vote.
But in Florida, a major swing state where the 2000 presidential election was infamously decided by 537 votes, that could soon change, as voters heading to the polls on Tuesday decide whether to pass Amendment 4 to the state’s constitution, restoring voting rights to 1.4 million of the state’s 1.68 million felons — all those who have completed their sentences, with the exception of people convicted of murder or sex offenses. In the 1970s, Florida legislators tried and failed to restore voting rights to convicted felons. They tried and failed again after the 2000 Bush-Gore recount, and after it emerged that more than 12,000 people had been purged from the voter rolls that year, many because they were wrongly identified as felons. Next week, at last, that decision will be directly in the hands of Florida voters themselves. If the amendment passes, it will enfranchise the largest number of people at once since American women won the right to vote in 1920.
Not Real Citizens
Twenty-six years ago, Anglin, now 49, got into a fight with another woman and was charged with assault and battery with a deadly weapon. She paid the consequences of that fight long past her three-year sentence: For years, she struggled to get jobs and housing, and she was prevented from accompanying her four children on school field trips. Today, her three sons all have felony convictions as well.
Anglin wasn’t particularly political before her sentence, but she always voted because her parents raised her to believe that voting was important. Then, two years after her sentence ended, a mail-in ballot was returned to her and she learned she could no longer vote. “You finish your jail sentence, your prison sentence, your probation, you paid all your fines. But at the end of the day there’s something to hold you back,” Anglin told The Intercept during a recent interview. “It was 26 years ago. I’ve done my time. I’ve done everything that was required of me, and I’m still not supposed to be able to vote? I pay taxes, I do everything else.”
For years, Anglin tried to make up for her inability to vote by getting everyone in her family to do so — at least, those who were still eligible. “I’m like, y’all go. Y’all need to go and vote,” she said. Today, with Amendment 4 finally on the ballot after years of campaigning and raising signatures, Anglin is taking that message further, knocking on strangers’ doors in between jobs with her cleaning business. With the exception of the many people she meets who are themselves felons or have felons in their families, most of those she speaks to don’t even realize felons can’t vote in Florida. Almost nobody objects to restoring their voting rights. If they do, “I just ask them, ‘You realize you’re talking to a convicted felon?’” Anglin said. “My sentence was 26 years ago. How long do I have to suffer for that? And then they’re just like, ‘No, no, okay, not you.’”
This week, with days to go before the vote, Anglin canvassed the Parramore neighborhood in central Orlando, a nearly all-black neighborhood, and the city’s poorest. Anglin volunteers with a number of groups supporting Amendment 4, including the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which was instrumental in getting the proposal on the ballot. But this week, she was representing Color of Change PAC, the political action wing of the national racial justice group Color of Change. The group, which focuses on building black political power and electing candidates who are accountable to black communities, got behind a number of races, including some already successful efforts, from Philadelphia to Ferguson, to elect progressive prosecutors. In Florida, in addition to supporting Amendment 4, the group is endorsing the campaigns of Andrew Gillum, who could become the state’s first black governor, and Bill Nelson, who is challenging exiting Gov. Rick Scott for a Senate seat.
Anglin mostly likes to talk about the voting rights of “returning citizens” like herself. On a hot morning, even by Orlando standards, she knocked on door after door, keeping away only from dogs and “no trespassing” signs and taking notes on an app used for election canvassing, through a neighborhood where she says incarceration is all too familiar. Of half a dozen people she spoke to in the neighborhood, half said they couldn’t vote because of a felony.
On a battered porch where a handful of middle-aged men and a woman were hanging out, Anglin’s arrival prompted discussions about whether voting served any purpose. “In Jamaica, they pay you to vote,” a man laughed before saying he can’t vote and declining to explain why. “He doesn’t want to stand in line,” a friend joked. “You can do an absentee ballot,” Anglin quickly chipped in. “Can you vote, Mike?” the man then shouted at another friend.
“I’ve been to prison three times, I can’t even get a passport,” the friend, Michael Bennett, replied. Bennett, 48, later told The Intercept that the last time he voted was for Bill Clinton, in 1992. He was serving in the military at the time. As he got older, he said, he became more interested in politics and the news, but as he got in trouble with the law, he couldn’t do much to exercise his newfound awareness. “We’re not real citizens like everyone else,” he said.
A few blocks down the road, another man, who identified himself only as Frank and declined to discuss his criminal history beyond saying he had a felony, pointed out the lack of election signs in Parramore that were ubiquitous elsewhere in the city. He met Anglin’s efforts to get out the vote with passionate skepticism. “This is Orange County; most African-American males like me can’t vote,” he said. “We got people with a DUI in ’97 who still can’t vote.”
“None of these politicians will ever get elected if they allow black people to vote. None of these people come around here; there is no vote here,” he added. “Me voting is just a dream, it’s just like me praying to hit the Powerball. It’s a big difference for this skin color. We don’t have dreams anymore.”
Anglin was undeterred. “We believe we can fix it,” she insisted. “We have got to be hopeful.”
“I’m going to come back and see you,” she told Frank resolutely. “Once it passes, I’ll come back to you and tell you, ‘Can I register you to vote?’ and I want you to come out with that same enthusiasm!” Frank pledged that he would vote if the amendment passed. “Watch this pass, we’ll see politicians here, walking up and down, kissing babies.”
For most of the morning, Anglin ended up in conversations about the broken justice system with others who, like herself, could not vote, but a couple of people told her they had already cast their ballots early — prompting high fives and hugs.
Willie McDonald said he voted for Amendment 4 because he had relatives with felonies. “But they did their time, they did what they had to do,” he added. If the amendment passed, he promised, he would register them himself. “I’ll get them to vote.”
Forced to Live in the Shadows
Of course re-enfranchising 1.4 million people doesn’t mean that they will automatically turn into voters — but those getting behind the effort hope that many will, and that the move could drastically transform both Florida’s politics and the country’s. “If we get 50 percent, that’s 50 percent that we didn’t have,” said Anglin.
Before Amendment 4 got on the ballot, after supporters collected the required 766,200 signatures and the state Supreme Court approved the measure, the only way for convicted felons to regain their voting rights was to individually petition Florida’s governor for clemency. But the process remained arbitrary and political. Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was then a Republican, re-enfranchised about 155,000 people during his tenure, in part by allowing those convicted of certain crimes to automatically become eligible for clemency without having to personally appeal. But Scott rolled back those measures, and only about 3,200 people saw their voting rights restored under his administration.
Those hoping to have their rights restored would have to wait years to gain a personal appearance before the governor and three cabinet members, and could then be subjected to lectures and arbitrary decisions.
Gillum, who is running for governor on a progressive platform, has endorsed Amendment 4, while his opponent, Ron DeSantis, after skirting questions about the amendment for months, has indicated he opposes it. Neither campaign responded to The Intercept’s questions about how they would approach the clemency process should Amendment 4 fail, and whether they would consider extending voting rights to former felons currently excluded from Amendment 4 if it does.
But for the man who, years ago, started the campaign that ended up on the ballot as Amendment 4, the issue was less one of politics than of humanity. Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, stresses that the group is nonpartisan and that the issue affects people across political and racial lines. He resists connecting felon disenfranchisement to other sustained efforts to exclude millions of voters across the country — mostly people of color and the poor.
“What drives this campaign is not about voting, and it’s not about voter suppression,” Meade told The Intercept during a short break from the campaign’s hectic final stretch. “There are so many people who have made mistakes in their lives, but those mistakes and going through those mistakes have made us much better people.”
“We’ve been giving back forever and a day, but in the past we’ve been forced to live in the shadows because of this scarlet letter,” he added. “This movement has really helped to humanize, to pull back the curtain and demystify who a felon is. It’s no longer the scary black guy anymore.”
While a disproportionately high number of Floridians with felonies are black, the majority are not, and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is careful not to frame the issue in terms of race, or as others have suggested, in terms of the potential to turn Florida solidly Democratic. To pass, Amendment 4 must receive 60 percent of the vote, and so far, polls have indicated that support for the measure is widespread across the political spectrum. The measure has earned broad support, including from the American Civil Liberties Union, faith groups, and the Koch Brothers. There is no organized effort to oppose it.
The ACLU has spent $5 million in support of the initiative, and a political action committee supporting the measure and chaired by Meade has raised at least $14.5 million. Meade and Neil Volz, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s political director, say that growing support for the amendment is a sign of felon disenfranchisement’s wide impact across Florida.
“It’s rural Florida, urban Florida, suburban Florida, the whole deal,” said Volz, who is white and a former Republican operative. “There is a universal value of ‘when a debt is paid, it’s paid’ that people support. I think it’s something really cool in this divisive moment that there’s something that unifies people.”
“I’m a 25-plus year conservative,” Volz added. “Desmond created a space where my story fit into the bigger story.”
“When I share my story, I don’t share my story and then ask, ‘Are you are Republican or are you a Democrat?’ I just share my story,” added Susanne Manning, who joined the coalition after serving 19 years of a 30-year sentence for embezzlement. Then, pointing at herself, Volz, and Meade, an unusual trio, she added, “This right here demonstrates that it can affect anybody.”
Manning, 57, lost her only son while she was incarcerated. “When I first came home, and until this day, I’m very embarrassed of my story, but I see the power of sharing it because it moves people,” she said. “I met a woman the other day and shared my story with her; she had never heard of Amendment 4, and she just hugged me and kissed me and told me, ‘You’re going to vote again.’”
But for all the barrier-breaking the campaign to pass Amendment 4 has achieved, and for all the inclusiveness it touts, its loudest critics have come not from the ranks of those who are conservative on crime, but from the felons Amendment 4 excludes.
“The problem with Amendment 4 is that it perpetuates discrimination and bigotry against a sub-class of former prisoners and convicted felons, namely those convicted of murder and sex offenses,” the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based prisoners’ rights group that distributes the monthly Prison Legal News, wrote in opposition to the ballot proposal. “All the talk of Amendment 4 supporters about second chances, redemption, reintegration into the community, etc. rings hollow and opportunistic when they made the decision to exclude murderers and sex offenders from the franchise and to enshrine this form of discrimination into the state constitution.”
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition ran focus groups that concluded that people wouldn’t support the amendment without certain “carve-outs,” Volz said. “There’s a practical side to this,” added Meade. “We spoke to people and found out what people wanted, what people are able to tolerate. … Exactly what they drew the line at was exactly what we wrote.”
But Paul Wright, the founder and director of the Human Rights Defense Center, who is himself a convicted felon and spent 17 years in prison in Washington state for a murder conviction, said the campaign around the amendment reinforced misconceptions about who is redeemable and drew unfair divisions between people who had equally paid their debt to society.
“From an activist and a political perspective, I think there’s a lot of problems with that, because basically, you are just saying the lowest common denominator is all you can aspire to,” Wright told The Intercept. “That just means as an activist, you don’t think you have the ability to change people’s minds, to sway them or convince them of anything.”
He noted that the exclusion of certain felons mirrored tendencies within the broader criminal justice reform movement to limit compassion to certain offenders. “A lot of people that have been pushing for sentencing reform, for example, have created this artificial divide between so-called violent offenders and nonviolent offenders,” he said. “What I can say, having been imprisoned myself, the prison officials certainly don’t treat people differently based on what the offense was.”
Wright believes that growing support, including significant financial backing, for the restoration of certain felons’ voting rights in Florida is driven by the desire to push the state’s political scales rather than a genuine commitment to the formerly incarcerated. “I think they’re just looking at a crass thing of, ‘If we re-enfranchise a bunch of people, we think enough of them are going to vote Democratic that Florida will cease to be a swing state.’”
“There is no plan for afterwards. This isn’t a case where people are getting into the lifeboat and saying, ‘We’re going to come back for you,’” he added. “If Amendment 4 passes, that’s pretty much the end of the road for everyone else.”
Everyone Deserves a Second Chance
Following canvassers as they knocked on doors in Orlando, The Intercept found that people were quickly on board with restoring felons’ voting rights — whether they had heard of Amendment 4 before or were learning about it for the first time.
In Pine Hills, a low-income, majority black suburb west of Orlando decked out in Halloween decorations, Travis Hailes, a volunteer with Color of Change PAC, mostly talked to people who had already cast their ballot. Mony Dorce, an elderly Haitian-American man, held a piece of paper where he had written down all of his votes, to check them against those Hailes was recommending.
“There are a lot of people who are locked up who shouldn’t be there,” said Janice Sessler, a few doors down. She had voted for Amendment 4 and after some hesitation said it should apply to those with murder and sex offense convictions as well. “Once they do their time, for whatever reason, they should get their rights back.”
“Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Hailes and Sessler traded stories of excessive punishment; someone he had recently met, he said, was caught “relieving himself in public” and ended up with a class 3 felony for indecent exposure. “It all started in the Jim Crow days,” Hailes added. “You were busted for a petty crime, and you’d lose your right to vote.”
Hailes, a 39-year-old business consultant, said he hadn’t realized until recently that felons couldn’t vote in Florida — even though his own mother had a felony. Hailes first joined Color of Change at a protest over the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, just north of Orlando. For years, he remained what he called a “paper warrior,” signing the group’s many online petitions but keeping his activism limited to the internet. “I was the least political person you could think of, I didn’t care for much,” he told The Intercept. “But then Trump happened.”
“A lot of people feel like this current administration doesn’t care about brown-skinned people or people that are living in underprivileged areas,” he said. “Trump is giving people motivation, but they need direction. I’m just a regular person like them, no different, and I get a chance to tell them, ‘Six months ago, I knew nothing about this either.’”
That’s the Color of Change PAC’s model. “We’ve been doing a lot of work to move folks from online to offline engagement; we’re doing a lot more in-person events, and in-person voter contact versus digital outreach,” said Arisha Hatch, the PAC’s director. “We’re really trying to build community. People are hungry for community in this political climate, so we’re trying to create a space for black people to come together.”
In Orlando, across Florida, and in the other states where Color of Change PAC has focused its efforts this election cycle — Michigan, Nevada, and Georgia — the group has held brunches and cookouts with more than 12,000 participants nationwide. They also knocked on over 50,000 doors in black neighborhoods, but they want to make sure they don’t just show up when an election is around the corner to ask for people’s vote.
“We believe that we shouldn’t be treating our members just as voters, but also as leaders in their communities,” Candice Fortin, a field organizer in Orlando, told The Intercept, describing a new model for sustained political engagement. “Money is really not the thing anymore. Now it’s just about getting people.”