Twenty-five years ago, when he was a sophomore at Ohio State, Neil Volz started volunteering for his state senator, Bob Ney. Volz grew up in a family that wasn’t especially political, but he was drawn to libertarian principles about limited regulation and taxation, and a political-science professor connected him with Ney, who was about to run in the Republican primary for an open seat in Congress. When Ney won his congressional election in 1994, the year Newt Gingrich’s “Republican revolution” swept Democrats from power in Washington, he asked Volz to join his staff. Volz was 24 (he had taken time off from college), and he decided to rent a car to drive to Washington and take the job. “It was a dream come true, honestly,” he told me.
Over the next four years, Volz got married and worked his way up to become Ney’s chief of staff. In 2002, when he was 31, he went through Washington’s revolving door to become a lobbyist — working for an influential high roller named Jack Abramoff, whom he had met through another Republican staff member. “I was a pirate on a ship for hire,” Volz said later, after he cooperated with the F.B.I. in the corruption scandal that shook Washington in 2006. Volz pleaded guilty to a felony count of conspiracy for channeling gifts from Abramoff’s firm to Ney, including trips to golf resorts, dinners in expensive restaurants and U2 tickets. In exchange, prosecutors showed, Ney tried to add four amendments to a 2002 bill to aid Abramoff’s clients, and helped another client win a lucrative government contract. Ney and Abramoff went to prison. Volz received a sentence of probation and community service.
After his conviction, Volz couldn’t get another job in politics. “I went from being a $500-an-hour lobbyist, with a view of the White House, to nobody wanted to hire me at all,” he said. His marriage was also falling apart. (He and his wife eventually divorced.) He decided to volunteer at a homeless shelter in Northwest Washington. A Vietnam veteran who was staying there encouraged him to go to church, and Volz started attending services, trying different congregations. After more than a year, he was hired as a case manager at the shelter, and then as its director. “I loved the whole second-chance culture,” he said. “The accountability, the ‘We’re in this together.’ ”
ImageNeil Volz, 47. Political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Finished serving sentence in 2011.
Neil Volz, 47. Political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Finished serving sentence in 2011.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
In 2008, Volz agreed to spend a few months fixing up a condominium in Fort Myers, Fla., that his parents inherited, so the family could sell it. He didn’t know anyone in town. He met a woman, fell in love and decided to stay in Fort Myers, cleaning pools and restaurants at night. He and his girlfriend married and joined a nondenominational church, where Volz ended up taking a job as outreach director. He went on to run a recovery center and to lead the county homeless coalition.
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In 2015, Volz happened on a meeting at Florida Gulf Coast University, where a small group of students and community activists were listening to an African-American law-school graduate named Desmond Meade. He was talking about his yearslong crusade to restore voting rights to people who had committed felonies, as he had. The issue affected Volz, who knew he was barred from voting, as is automatically the case in Florida for anyone with a felony conviction. Meade was president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an organization founded by the Florida A.C.L.U. for former felons, or, as he and others prefer to call themselves, “returning citizens.” Meade was in the midst of trying to collect the 766,200 signatures required to place an initiative on the ballot to amend Florida’s Constitution, which denies former felons the right to vote. Volz stayed after the meeting to talk to Meade. “We chatted for a long time, and by the end, I wanted to help,” he said.
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Across the country, more than six million people have lost the right to vote because of their criminal records. More than 1.5 million of them live in Florida, a higher number than in any other state. The proposed ballot initiative would automatically restore the right to vote to people with a felony conviction who have completed their sentences. (The initiative makes two exceptions: no voting rights for people convicted of murder or sex offenses.) At the beginning of this year, with the signatures gathered, the state certified the initiative, called Amendment 4, for the November ballot.
Like any change to Florida’s Constitution, Amendment 4 needs 60 percent of the vote to pass. In the summer of 2017, after Volz spent more than a year volunteering, Meade offered him the paid position of political director. He hoped that Volz, with his experience as a Republican operative, could help frame the restoration of voting rights in terms that appealed to a wide constituency — Republicans and independents as well as people of color and white liberals. “It’s everybody that can’t vote,” Meade likes to say. “I’m fighting just as hard, if not more, for that guy that wanted to vote for Donald Trump than a guy who wishes to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.”
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Meade addressing staff after a conference in September.
Meade addressing staff after a conference in September.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
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Volz, who is 47, has a reddish-brown beard and still roots for the Ohio State Buckeyes. He said he was nervous about taking the job and especially about talking to me when we met in June at a coffee shop near his home in Fort Myers. Several years ago, he participated in a documentary about Abramoff and self-published a memoir, and the media mostly mocked him as a man desperate to eat again in Washington steakhouses. “I didn’t want to get back in the game,” he said of returning to politics. At the same time, he remains an informed Republican — he wasn’t a Trump supporter, but he was precise and analytical when talking about Trump’s appeal — and he said he found it satisfying, if surreal, to put what he learned in Washington at the service of the second-chances movement.
To its supporters, Amendment 4 represents a potential civil rights triumph: It could enfranchise more people at once than any single initiative since women’s suffrage. Amendment 4 could also change the Florida electorate. White people represent a majority of the state’s former felons. At the same time, black people are disproportionately affected by the current ban. More than one in five black voters can’t vote in Florida, compared with about one in 10 voters in the state’s general population (and one in 40 nationwide). Florida is one of the country’s truly purple states, with a recent history of squeaker elections for governor, Congress and other offices. In three of the last five presidential contests, Florida went to a candidate who won the state by a margin of 1.2 percent or less. This year, polls show tossup races for governor (the Republican Ron DeSantis running against the Democrat Andrew Gillum) and senator (the Republican Rick Scott against the Democrat Bill Nelson). Five of the state’s congressional seats are also in play.
I asked Volz if he thought he might be hurting the Republican Party if Amendment 4 had a shot at turning Florida from purple to blue. He said he didn’t think it would happen. But if it did, I asked, would its passage undermine his conservative policy goals? “You have to cross a line,” he said. “Do you believe that it’s better that more people vote, or not? I crossed that line long ago.”
Over the last decade and a half, Republicans have succeeded in enacting a variety of voting-restriction measures that have affected people of color and low-income voters more than other groups. The tactics include strict voter-ID laws, purges of the voter rolls, redrawing district lines so as to dilute the power of black and Hispanic voters, cutting back on early voting and in some instances opposing automatic voter registration. The Supreme Court’s decision in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder shredded the part of the Voting Rights Act that gave the Justice Department the role of monitoring any changes to local election rules and practices in states and counties with a history of racial discrimination. In 2016, a study by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights and human rights organization, found that at least 868 polling places had been closed in 381 previously monitored counties since the ruling.
[Read about how there’s a good chance we simply won’t know if someone has altered the digital votes in the next election.]
The framers did not include the right to vote in the United States Constitution. This absence has allowed for the disenfranchisement of former felons, which has deeper roots than almost any other kind of voter suppression. In 1865, William Marvin, appointed provisional governor of Florida by President Andrew Johnson to re-establish state government after the Civil War, argued that the abolition of slavery did not mean free black people could vote. “The governing power is in the hands of the white race,” Marvin said. But in 1868, Congress decided that in order for Southern states to return to the Union, each had to ratify the provision for equal rights in the 14th Amendment — at a state convention where black people could vote. Florida held a convention as required, but delegates who represented the antebellum power structure and opposed Reconstruction wrested control from the radical Republicans (some of whom were black) who were trying to remake the South.
The opponents of Reconstruction drafted a Florida Constitution that allowed black men to vote, as Congress mandated, while curtailing their power. The Constitution put the appointment of local officials in the hands of the governor, which meant majority-black counties could not choose for themselves. Afterward, one delegate who led the fight for the 1868 Constitution boasted of preventing Florida from becoming “niggerized.”
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Like other Southern states, Florida also enacted a set of measures known as the Black Codes. The state established severe penalties for minor crimes like vagrancy and petty larceny and arrested large numbers of former slaves based on thin or invented claims. States throughout the nation passed laws in the early 19th century that barred former felons from voting. In the South, these laws spread during Reconstruction, in response to black citizens’ getting the vote, at the same time as Black Codes created many more black convicts. The 1868 Florida Constitution disenfranchised felons and included petty larceny among the crimes that counted as felonies.
Poll taxes and literacy tests would come later. In the 1870s, felon disenfranchisement — along with lynchings, kidnappings and other violence — served to “preserve the purity of the ballot box,” in the words of an 1884 Alabama Supreme Court ruling. The strategy succeeded. In Florida, a faction of reactionary white people gained a majority in the Legislature in 1876, essentially ending the chance for African-Americans to share political power.
Hanging a card that residents can sign if they want to be contacted by the restoration campaign or join it.
Hanging a card that residents can sign if they want to be contacted by the restoration campaign or join it.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
The disenfranchisement of former felons remained a widespread feature of American law until the civil rights era of the 1960s and ’70s, when 17 states repealed their disenfranchisement provisions for former felons. The Florida Legislature tried to join this group of states, passing a bill in 1974 to restore the right to vote after the completion of a felony sentence. But the state Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion that the bill interfered with the executive branch’s powers to grant pardons and restore civil rights, effectively striking the bill down. The same year, the Supreme Court of the United States heard a case brought by former felons in California claiming the state laws that permanently disenfranchised them violated the equal-protection guarantee in the 14th Amendment. The court rejected that argument, because another part of the 14th Amendment states that the right to vote can be “abridged” for committing a crime.
In September 2000, the Brennan Center for Justice, a law-and-policy institute at New York University School of Law, tried another approach to challenge the constitutionality of disenfranchisement, filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of former felons in federal court in Florida. Citing the history of the 1868 convention, the suit argued that the disenfranchisement law had been adopted to discriminate against African-Americans and continued to do so, because they were disproportionately affected.
Weeks after the case was filed, Florida brought the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore to a halt with one of the most disputed vote counts in the country’s history. After Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes, it came to light that before the election, just over 12,000 people had been wrongly eliminated from the voting rolls, many of them because they were misidentified as former felons. Though African-Americans made up about 11 percent of registered voters in the state, they accounted for a reported 44 percent of the people who were purged. Given the strong support of black voters for Democrats in Florida, if they had remained on the rolls, the election might have been decided differently.
Following the 2000 presidential election, black legislators in Florida repeatedly introduced re-enfranchisement bills, but they couldn’t win the two-thirds support in the Legislature required to amend the state’s Constitution. In 2005, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled against the plaintiffs in the Brennan Center case, dismissing the evidence of racial discrimination in the enactment of the 1868 Constitution as a “few isolated remarks.” On its face, Florida’s voting ban was race-neutral, and for the Court of Appeals, that meant it didn’t violate the guarantee of equal protection of law in the United States Constitution.
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In the years that followed, the movement to restore the vote shifted its focus to the governor’s office. Florida law allowed former felons, on an individual basis, to petition for clemency so that they could vote. In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist, at the time a Republican, brokered an agreement to streamline the clemency process. Most people with nonviolent convictions would no longer have to petition individually. Once they completed their sentences, their cases would be automatically submitted for clemency.
During Crist’s term, more than 155,000 citizens had their voting rights restored. His actions were greeted with consternation from other leaders in his party. “My Republican friends were calling and asking, ‘Why would you do that?’ ” he told me. Crist left the party in 2010 and has since been elected to Congress as a Democrat. Gov. Rick Scott, his Republican successor, reverted to a stricter set of rules, which imposed a five- or seven-year waiting period, depending on the crime, and required most people to appear in person for a hearing in front of the governor and three cabinet members. It can take years to receive a hearing.
On Scott’s watch, only about 3,200 people have succeeded in having their voting rights restored. The basis for a successful petition is not clear. In one 2016 hearing, explaining why a petitioner was denied, Scott said: “There’s no standard. We can do whatever we want.” Last March, Mark Walker, a federal District Court judge, ordered the state to come up with a new process, with specific and neutral criteria, ruling that the current clemency rules were arbitrary and fatally flawed. Judge Walker’s order has been stayed while the state appeals.
There’s some debate over whether the passage of Amendment 4 would favor Democrats. In 2002, a pair of sociologists, Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, published an article in The American Sociological Review that assessed the most likely outcome in 2000 if Florida’s former felons, who numbered around 827,000 at the time, had the vote. Considering factors like income, employment history and race, Uggen and Manza estimated that as a group, the former felons would have broken for Gore by more than two to one, concluding that even if they had voted at a low rate, “Gore would certainly have carried the state, and the election.”
In the last few years, other researchers have challenged Uggen and Manza’s assumptions about partisan effect and turnout. “Re-enfranchisement might not produce big electoral effects,” Traci Burch, a political scientist at Northwestern University, told me. “Cohorts released many years ago” — people she thinks are more likely to support Republicans — “might be more likely to vote than people who finished their sentences more recently.”
Norris Henderson was convicted of murder in 1977 and spent 27 years in prison before being released on probation. Since then, he has worked for voting rights in Louisiana, his home state, registering former felons, who can vote when their sentences have been completed. “When folks get to the box for picking a party, most of them choose to be independent,” Henderson said. “Because in our state, like a lot of places, felon disenfranchisement was bipartisan. Both y’all parties done this. Folks assume this is a population that’s indebted to Democrats. That’s far from the truth.” Uggen, who has interviewed former felons in Oregon, has reached a similar conclusion. But he still thinks that they could tip the balance toward Democrats in a closely contested election in Florida.
Since 2000, around 10 states, with differing politics and from a variety of regions, have loosened or lifted the barriers that prevented former felons from voting once they completed their sentences. The list includes California, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New York and Virginia. Two states — Maine and Vermont — allow people to vote from prison. Many states still prevent people from voting while they’re on parole and probation. But at this point, only Florida, Iowa and Kentucky disenfranchise former felons across the board.
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Nubian Roberts, center, organizing volunteers for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in September.
Nubian Roberts, center, organizing volunteers for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in September.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
In June, Desmond Meade, the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, flew to Pensacola, in the Florida panhandle, to speak at a sold-out benefit for a local civil rights group called Movement for Change. The event was held in a large, low-ceilinged room at a community center, decorated with black tablecloths and a red ribbon around each black-draped chair. A few candidates for local office, white and black, had come to shake hands with about 300 predominantly black residents. The program began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Negro National Anthem.
At 51, Meade has a clean-shaven head and a short salt-and-pepper beard. He was born in St. Croix and moved to Miami with his parents when he was 5. His mother worked as a waitress, and his father was a mechanic. His family was stable and neither well off nor poor, he said, and he remembers his upbringing as “typical” — he played football and wrestled, but not seriously, and after graduating from high school in 1985, he went into the Army. He worked on helicopters as a mechanic, hoping to become a pilot. But Meade’s eyesight wasn’t sharp enough, and in his early 20s, he found his ambitions stymied. Around that time, while he was stationed on a military base in Hawaii, a friend introduced him to cocaine.
Meade soon developed a drug habit and started stealing to support it. After being caught stealing liquor and electronics on the base, he was dishonorably discharged and given a three-year sentence in a military brig, which he served in Kansas. After his release in 1993, Meade went back to Florida and started working as a celebrity body guard, a job that led him back to cocaine. He was devastated by the death of his mother in 1996, followed by a bank foreclosure on the home he grew up in. “That’s when I really dove deeper into drugs,” he said. He was convicted of aggravated battery, a felony, after a fight with his brother and his brother’s friend.
Meade went to jail for felony cocaine possession multiple times over the next handful of years. In 2001, he was convicted of possession of a firearm as a felon. He was sentenced to 15 years but got out in 2004 when his conviction was reversed on appeal because of a problem with the jury selection. Meade returned to cocaine and to living on the streets.
Speaking at the benefit in Pensacola, Meade began his story here, at his lowest point. “In August of 2005, I found myself standing in front of railroad tracks in South Florida,” he told his audience. “As I stood there that day, I was a broken man.” Meade paused. “But there was a power greater than me that did not allow that train to come that day,” he said. “I crossed those tracks, and I walked a couple blocks further, and I checked myself into drug treatment.”
Meade got clean over the course of the four-month program and found a spot at a homeless shelter. While living there, he enrolled at Miami-Dade College, paying with Pell grants and student loans. He tried to take full advantage of the school, visiting his professors during their office hours, asking them to read and comment on his papers and rewriting them. He graduated summa cum laude in 2010. In 2011, he enrolled in law school at Florida International University, graduating three years later. But the Florida Bar won’t allow him to sit for the bar exam until the state restores his rights.
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Meade first applied for clemency to be able to vote in 2006, before Charlie Crist streamlined the clemency process. In 2011, he was told he had to wait five more years, and he still can’t vote. Meade became the unpaid head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. At first, the project often felt like a one-man operation. He put 50,000 miles a year on his car to travel the state and give talks at churches, universities, community events, picnics — anywhere he could gather an audience to hear his message. Struggling to raise money, he spent part of his student loans on fruitless fund-raising trips to New York and Washington. In 2012, he started working for the Live Free Campaign, which addresses gun violence and mass incarceration, while continuing to do the voting rights work. He married a woman that year whom he met doing voting outreach; they’re raising her five children, who are between the ages of 12 and 21. Meade says that when he started the drive for Amendment 4 in 2015, his mother-in-law sorted the petitions, and his children counted the names.
In fall 2017, several months after the Florida Supreme Court unanimously approved the proposed language of the ballot initiative for clarity, the Florida A.C.L.U. (whose director, Howard Simon, has been working on voting rights since he marched in Selma in 1965) put $1.6 million into hiring people to help collect and sort signatures, eventually contributing a total of $5 million to support the initiative. Other major donors came on board, beginning with the Open Philanthropy Action Fund, based in California and started by a group including the Facebook founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna. Meade began drawing a paycheck from the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition for the first time last year.
Meade is emerging as a star on the liberal speaking circuit — interviewed by Samantha Bee for her show, “Full Frontal”; featured alongside Jennifer Lawrence at an event called “Unrig the System” at Tulane University. Receiving an award in May at a gala benefit for the public-policy group Demos, Meade glistened with tears as he looked out at the audience. “This amazing work that we’re doing, it’s shiny and bright now, and there’s a lot of people that want to attach to it,” he said, “but there was a time when it wasn’t that shiny. There was a time when I was knocking on doors and nobody wanted to answer.” This year, wealthy individuals — including the philanthropists Laurie Michaels, Daniel Lewis and Cale and Zoe Bonderman — have written large checks to Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a political action committee of which Meade is chairman. In all, the PAC has raised nearly $14.5 million to help pass Amendment 4.
Before his speech in Pensacola, Meade spent time with a small group of the local leaders of Movement for Change. One of them wondered if Hillary Clinton would have won Florida if turnout had been higher in black communities like the one in Pensacola. Meade offered a general theory about turnout. One reason people who can vote don’t do so, whether they realize it or not, is that they’re closely related to someone who can’t vote, he proposed. “Back in the day, when Dad went to vote, he took the whole family with him, and voting was part of the conversation at the dinner table.” But, Meade continued, “when you strip Mama and Daddy of the right to vote, you kill that conversation. So what we think is happening now is, a person like me who can’t vote, you come to me talking about going out to vote, it’s like you slapping me in my face, reminding me I’m not part of society. So to mask that pain, ’cause I don’t want to tell you I’m a felon, I’m going to say, ‘Man, your vote don’t count.’ ” In other words, former felons may discourage turnout among those around them by covering their hurt with indifference.
In his speech at the church, Meade said that emotion is at the heart of the movement to restore the vote. “We cannot continue to make people keep suffering in pain over and over and over again for a debt that’s already been paid.” He asked the audience to stand if they believed in second chances, and they rose to their feet. While they stood, he took them back to the last six words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “with liberty and justice for all.” The audience said the words with him. “Not some,” Meade continued. “Not just the rich. Not just white. Not just Republican. Not just Democrat. For all. For all. That’s when our nation is great.” He ended with a personal exhortation: “Don’t put that ‘felon’ next to my name. I’m a returning citizen. I did my crime. I paid my time. Now let me move on. Say yes to second chances.”
The crowd erupted in applause. Meade had a seven-hour drive back to Orlando, but he stayed until all the people lined up to shake his hand and take a photo with him were satisfied. When he returned to his home in a tidy gated community near Universal Studios, the dawn was breaking.
On a Saturday in June, Neil Volz gathered a dozen volunteers at a pretty Unitarian church on the river in Fort Myers for an afternoon of phone banking to start getting out the vote for Amendment 4. The callers were a mostly white mix of retirees, formerly incarcerated people and people who had attended the Women’s March in Washington. Afterward, Volz took a few volunteers out to canvass in a northern part of the city called Palmona Park, to encourage residents who signed the petition that put the initiative on the ballot to vote in November.
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The majority-white low-income neighborhood, which voted for Trump in 2016, sits between two branches of the interstate and feels rural, with few sidewalks, lots of trees and the occasional pickup truck parked on the lawn. The group of canvassers approached a gray-haired woman as she came out of her ranch house, where an American flag hung from the front porch, to check the mailbox at the end of her driveway. One canvasser, Tammie Schafer, asked the woman if she remembered signing the Amendment 4 petition, explaining that it would restore the vote to former felons if it passed. The woman said that her next-door neighbor hadn’t been able to vote for the last 30 years. “For something she did when she was 19 years old. That makes no sense. She did her time. She made a mistake. Move on. Give them a chance to vote!”
Tammie Schafer, 40. Temp and college student. Finished serving sentence in 2006.
Tammie Schafer, 40. Temp and college student. Finished serving sentence in 2006.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
Schafer, who is petite and has short blond-streaked hair, started volunteering for the campaign after she saw a Facebook post by Volz, whom she knew through homeless-outreach work. Now 40, she was convicted 15 years ago of possession of Xanax without a prescription, a felony. In 2006, a couple of months after she gave birth to her daughter, she was sent to jail for violating her probation by testing positive for marijuana, which she says she used to relieve back pain and anxiety. She had to leave her newborn baby with her mother. “Three months in, my mother sent me a picture of her, and I didn’t recognize her,” she said. “I was heartbroken.” After that, she never went back to jail.
Schafer rarely voted before her conviction. But two years ago, she got interested in an initiative on the Florida ballot to expand access to medical marijuana. “If I could have voted for my medicine, that would have been tremendous for me,” she said. The initiative passed, and she got permission to use the marijuana that had landed her in jail.
At one house in Palmona Park, Schafer and her group knocked on a door with a sticker that read “My Dog Is a Republican.” The older man who answered wore an undershirt, shorts and knee-high compression stockings. Once he understood the canvassers’ pitch, he put up a hand to stop them from talking. “No,” he said. “You go to jail, you lose all your rights. You kill someone, you don’t ever get them back.”
Schafer told him that Amendment 4 wouldn’t give the vote to people convicted of murder or sex offenses. “This is for people like me,” she said, looking the man in the eye. “I never did anything violent. I just want a second chance.” The man shook his head. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “They’ll work up to the murderers next. You’ll see.” He turned to go inside but first aimed one more retort at Schafer: “You don’t need second chances.”
Despite such resistance, the Amendment 4 campaign is betting that many working-class white people can relate to the struggle that often comes with getting out of prison. At the end of August, the campaign posted its first ad online, a 60-second spot that featured a barrel-chested white man walking out of prison and gathering his wife in his arms. He drives them home in a pickup truck and attends his daughter’s softball game. The only words come from a plaintive song by the indie group the Sons of Bill. When Volz screened the ad before its release, he was pleased. “We’re educating people about the impact a felony conviction can have on a family in a way that reflects the diversity of who is affected,” he said. “Absolutely, we think there is a broad story to tell.”
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A pair of polls, one conducted in the winter by a lab at the University of North Florida and a second in the spring by two firms, showed Amendment 4 polling above 70 percent. Support was highest among Democrats and independents but also above 60 percent for Republicans in the second poll. “Many people think ballot initiatives are about convincing voters, but really they’re about meeting voters where they already are,” says Robert Rooks, vice president for Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national organization that helped pass a 2014 ballot initiative in California to reduce incarceration and has helped with fund-raising and strategy for the Amendment 4 campaign. “Your effort goes into protecting the lead you have.” (A third poll conducted for the Florida Chamber of Commerce in May and June asked voters about their support for Amendment 4 without explaining what the measure stood for; it showed only 40 percent support, with 43 percent undecided.)
Restoring people who have served their time to full citizenship aligns with a growing bipartisan push to make it easier for people leaving prison to successfully re-enter their communities by removing obstacles to finding housing or decent jobs. The movement has gained traction with conservative evangelical groups, and in Florida they are backing Amendment 4. Allies include leaders from the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the Christian Coalition of America. “Much like we see in the Bible, once a debt is paid, we are restored into a right relationship with God,” Keith den Hollander, the Christian Coalition’s national field director, wrote in a September op-ed in The News-Press, a South Florida newspaper. “As Christians, more divinity is what we strive for, and forgiving those who have trespassed against society, and restoring them to a right relationship, is just a little more divine, and why we are supporting Amendment 4.”
So far, no one has started a political action committee to fight the ballot initiative. The biggest source of conservative spending on elections, the network created by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, declared support for Amendment 4. “You can’t work here,” Mark Holden, the Kochs’ general counsel, told me. “You can’t get housing there. You can’t vote — that doesn’t make sense to us.” Nonetheless, the network has not put any money into the campaign. “We’re not getting in the middle of that,” Holden said.
Nationally, the Koch network plans to spend $300 million to $400 million in the November election cycle. One of their beneficiaries is Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate for Florida governor. He has been ducking questions from the press about the ballot initiative for months; his campaign didn’t return my calls. There’s still time before the election, however, for organized opposition to Amendment 4 to form. A fear-mongering ad about criminals could scare off voters. An angry tweet from President Trump might hurt the measure, too.
Outside Florida, it’s rare but not unheard-of for Republicans to support steps toward former-felon re-enfranchisement. In Louisiana, which barred people from voting if they were on probation or parole, 25 Republicans in the Legislature joined 52 Democrats in May to pass a bill that restored voting rights to people who have been out of prison for five years but remain under supervision.
There’s evidence, too, that Democrats, wary of being labeled soft on crime in the past, are growing bolder. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor in Florida, has strongly supported Amendment 4. In Virginia, where the state Constitution also bars felons from voting, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, began re-enfranchising a small number of nonviolent former felons in 2013. His Democratic successor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, announced he would automatically restore the voting rights of 200,000 of them. When the Republican Legislature blocked him in court, McAuliffe used an autopen to sign the clemency orders one by one.
“We’ve turned a corner,” says Jon Liss, who has worked on the issue for more than a decade as co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a civic-engagement organization. He wonders if the opioid epidemic has affected the way people think about the issue. “We have large numbers of white working people incarcerated now in Virginia. If you’re a white rural legislator, a lot of your constituents can’t vote.”
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There’s also a cost-savings argument for Amendment 4. This spring, a report by the Washington Economics Group, a consulting firm whose clients include businesses like Nascar, projected that passing the ballot initiative would lead to $365 million per year in gains for the state’s economy, from lower prison costs and increased productivity. Passing Amendment 4 “will make Florida a more competitive state,” said Carlos Fernandez-Guzman, a past chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, when the report was released.
The claim of economic gains is based on an association between enfranchisement and the rate of reoffending. States that permanently take away the right to vote have higher rates of recidivism than those that do not, according to a 2012 study published in The Berkeley La Raza Law Journal. In Florida, the parole commission reported a reoffending rate of 12.4 percent over two and a half years for about 25,000 people released in 2009 whose rights were restored through the automatic process Crist implemented when he was governor, compared with a state average for recidivism of about 30 percent. Almost all of those 25,000 people committed relatively low-level offenses (you can be convicted of felony theft in Florida for stealing anything worth more than $300, including a stop sign). They also weren’t on probation, which results in the return of many people to jail for minor violations. Still, the difference is striking.
One researcher has data, not yet published, that could help explain it. Victoria Shineman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, did a study with 150 former felons in Ohio and Virginia. Some of them received help getting back their voting rights and registering to vote, and afterward, that group was more likely to say they trusted the government and the justice system. “The results suggest that reversing disenfranchisement causes citizens to increase their pro-democratic attitudes and behaviors — all of which are predictors of reduced recidivism,” Shineman wrote.
Meade and Volz would like the expansion of the franchise to be a key pillar of the platform of both parties. That’s an idealistic notion, at odds with current Republican strategy and the intensely polarized national landscape. If Amendment 4 passes, however, it will be possible to argue that democracy for democracy’s sake is good politics.
Correction: Sept. 28, 2018
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the affiliation of Neil Volz. He is the political director of