Florida welcomes back its 1.5m ‘returning citizens’ after ex-felons regain voting rights | US news



Valencia Gunder has found no shortage of ways to leave her mark on her local community in and around low-income neighborhoods of Miami, Florida.

As a community organizer, she has railed against climate change and its specific effects in displacing marginalized people from housing. During moments of crisis, like 2017’s Hurricane Irma, she has mobilized to help low-income black and Hispanic south Floridians with relief and recovery.

She has founded the not-for-profit, Make the Homeless Smile, in a part due to her own experiences with homelessness.

But for years, there has been one fundamental mark Gunder has been legally forbidden from making. Thanks to a felony conviction over a bad check she wrote to her university in 2007, Gunder was unable to cast a ballot in an election for the past eight years.

“The fact that I’m an organizer, I’m an activist, and I’m an advocate, and I’m out here in the community making change but I can’t really participate? It’s hurtful,” she said.

That changed in the midterm elections on Tuesday night when Florida voters offered resounding support to a ballot measure titled Amendment 4 to reinstate voting rights for nearly all of the state’s estimated 1.5 million ex-felons; or “returning citizens” as campaign organizers prefer to call them.

Gunder, exhausted from campaigning for Amendment 4 by speaking at events and knocking on doors, was elated over the change.

“As a United States citizen, as a resident of the state of Florida, as a person who is affected by these leaders that we put into office and the decisions that are being made, I should be able to weigh in,” Gunder said. “I strongly believe that taxation without representation is against my human rights and civil rights as a United States citizen.”

Thanks to a felony conviction, Valencia Gunder was unable to cast a ballot in an election for the past eight years.

Thanks to a felony conviction, Valencia Gunder was unable to cast a ballot in an election for the past eight years. Photograph: Ed Pilkington for the Guardian

The excitement was palpable too at the campaign headquarters of Andrew Gillum, the failed Democratic candidate for governor, on Tuesday night. Even as the candidate himself prepared to concede defeat to his Republican opponent, the assembled crowd let out a joyous applause when it was announced that the measure, which Gillum strongly supported, had passed.

“It took me 18 years to get my rights back,” said George Jackson, a Miami resident and Gillum supporter. “We’ve been pushing it, pushing it, pushing it and finally it happened – so we’re super-excited.”

Jackson picked up a felony in 1989, at the age of 19, for armed robbery. He said he grew up poor, fell in with a bad crowd and was seduced by the promise of easy money. By the late 1990s, though, Jackson had changed direction, managing a landscaping business and doing comedy on the side.

He became politically engaged in trying to restore the voting rights of returning citizens after years of feeling like something essential had been taken from him.

“Voting is a right, not a privilege. It’s like they took away our driving rights,” Jackson said.

Amendment 4 restores voting rights to all Floridians previously convicted of a felony, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense. It passed by a 30-point margin, 65% to 35%, in a state notorious for razor-close elections, indicating strong bipartisan support.

That surprised some spectators, but not Gunder, who said that part of mobilizing the campaign was built around uncoupling it from the usual partisan politics.

“We made sure people understood that this was a ‘people’s’ issue, not a ‘specific type of people’, not a certain religion or race, but that this was a people’s issue that everyone was affected by,” Gunder said.

Neil Volz, a fellow returning citizen and board member with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition – one of the main groups that agitated for the change – hammered that point home too.

Even as Andrew Gillum prepared to concede, his supporters let out joyous applause when it was announced that Amendment 4 had passed.

Even as Andrew Gillum prepared to concede, his supporters let out joyous applause when it was announced that Amendment 4 had passed. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

A former registered Republican himself, Volz said that in order to win support it had been important to challenge the conventional wisdom that said that reinstating voting rights for ex-felons could mean a “blue wave” of new voters for Democrats in the swing state.

That logic had basically held since the fallout from the 2000 presidential election, which turned on less than 1,000 votes in Florida, and which was when many Americans became familiar with felon disfranchisement.

The simplest version of the argument held that, since ex-felons are disproportionately black in Florida, and black voters disproportionately support Democrats, granting voting rights would be a net boon to Democratic candidates.

Research shows it isn’t so simple. It’s true that the criminal justice system disproportionately ensnares black Americans, but in raw numbers, the largest cohort of ex-felons in Florida are white men, who tend to vote for Republicans.

A 2012 study by a researcher at Northwestern found that if ex-felons had been able to vote in the 2000 election, it might have actually bolstered the vote totals for George Bush’s narrow victory. A recent study from Vox had similar findings.

Volz, who lost the right to vote after a fraud conviction while working as a political lobbyist, said at best it’s unclear what the partisan impact will be of refranchisement, but that the smartest thing to do is just “let this play itself out”, because the underlying principles are more important than which party controls what.

He described a scene of hugs and tears of joy when the initiative was projected to win, at an election night watch party with hundreds of formerly convicted folks in Orlando on Tuesday night.

“It felt like there’s a lid on my participation in my own community because of something that happened a long time ago, that I have already you know, paid back my debt for,” Volz said.

“On Tuesday, we got to lift that lid off.”

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