Amendment 4′s top advocate isn’t celebrating this week. Here’s why.

Desmond Meade said the felon voting rights initiative has become consumed by partisanship.
Florida Rights and Restoration Coalition president Desmond Meade spoke at a press conference during an event, which headlined John Legend, in support of Florida’s Amendment 4 in Orlando last October. {Times (2018)]
Florida Rights and Restoration Coalition president Desmond Meade spoke at a press conference during an event, which headlined John Legend, in support of Florida’s Amendment 4 in Orlando last October. {Times (2018)]
Published Feb. 22, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s felon voting rights initiative, known as Amendment 4, scored a big victory Wednesday when a federal appeals court ruled that the Legislature’s effort to limit voting to only felons who have paid off all their court debts was unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Democrats and politicians touted the latest decision as a victory. National reporters tweeted it and pundits pontificated.

But Desmond Meade, the man who led the historic 2018 initiative, wasn’t celebrating. A few hours after the ruling was announced, Meade took to Facebook Live and sighed.

“It might surprise you,” he told his audience, “but it kind of made me sad.”

For Meade, the hype and partisanship over Amendment 4 has been a “roller coaster” for felons. He fears they will become exhausted by each development in the case and give up trying to register.

Overall, he said, the original “apolitical” intentions behind his measure have been lost.

Since it was approved by nearly two-thirds of Florida voters in 2018, Amendment 4 has become arguably the most high-profile voting rights case in the nation. It’s also become yet another wedge issue pitting Republicans against Democrats in a critical election year.

Meade has mostly stayed out of the fight. Neither he nor the organization he leads — the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition — have joined the lawsuit, and he hasn’t lobbed insults at Gov. Ron DeSantis or Republican lawmakers.

“What we were trying to do is expand our democracy, which is good for everyone,” he told the Times/Herald Thursday. “That is being lost in the undertones, the partisan undertones, that are driving a lot of these conversations.”

Amid all the controversy, it’s becoming more clear that Amendment 4’s impact on the 2020 election is likely wildly overblown.

It’s not clear how many felons have registered to vote in the last year, but the number is likely small. There’s even less indication that felons are registering overwhelmingly as Democrats.

It’s not just Meade who has tried to tap the brakes on the hype. University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald said he and colleague Dan Smith have doubted an oft-repeated claim that Amendment 4 could add up to 1.4 million felons to the voter rolls.

If even 10 percent of that total, 140,000, registered to vote, it could be significant in Florida, where statewide races are often won by razor-thin margins.

Data from the Florida Department of Corrections show that there are less than half that many felons in Florida, however, according to McDonald. On top of that, felons tend to be poor — a demographic with historically low voting rates, he said.

“We were always suspicious about these overestimates, at least in my opinion, and the accompanying belief about what the effect would be,” McDonald said.

The figures fueled speculation that large numbers of felons, who are disproportionately black, would register as Democrats. Such an uptick, liberals hoped, would help Democrats take back the governor’s mansion and the Legislature. Republicans have controlled Tallahassee for the last two decades.

So when the Legislature moved to limit the effect of Amendment 4 last year, it led Democratic lawmakers and national figures from New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to accuse GOP lawmakers of instituting a “poll tax.”

The amendment reversed a racist 150-year-old law by restoring the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms of sentence.” The bill DeSantis signed last year required “all terms” to include paying back all court fees, fines and restitution to victims, which often totals thousands of dollars.

Smith testified last year that his analysis showed 80 percent of felons owe outstanding fines, fees or restitution to victims, and that the amounts were higher for black felons.

Outrage over the changes sparked a federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, who have claimed the legislature’s requirement was unconstitutional. The courts have so far agreed, although both sides believe it will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rhetoric over the Legislature’s actions was particularly harsh against one of the architects of the bill, Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, who some dubbed “Jim Crow Jamie.”

Grant has disputed the idea lawmakers were trying to stifle Democratic votes, and he rejected the notion that felons were Democrats.

“If we were at a President Trump rally, we’d look around and go, ‘You know, I imagine there are some people here who have done some time,’” Grant said earlier this month.

He called the electoral implications of Amendment 4 “a political nothing burger.”

McDonald agreed, although he noted the Legislature’s actions probably helped Republicans more than Democrats, since wealthier felons were more likely to be conservative. He said there was a lack of data either way.

“My expectation is that it would be much ado about nothing, politically,” McDonald said, although the impact on individual voters was significant.

Meade optimistically estimates 50,000 felons have registered to vote since Amendment 4 took effect last year, about 0.3 percent of all active registered voters as of Jan. 31. His organization has 20,000 felons who have asked for help registering, and nearly 5,000 people have donated more than $500,000 to help them pay off their fines and fees.

Instead of getting involved in the ACLU’s lawsuit, he’s called on DeSantis to revise the state’s rules to make it easier for felons to apply for clemency.

“We’ve called for that governor of ours, who’s said he’s for the people, to be bold and courageous and revise the clemency laws,” Meade said.

When asked about Meade’s suggestions, DeSantis on Thursday avoided the question. He said the bill he signed “was more liberal than Amendment 4,” since it allowed felons to ask a judge to have their fees waived or converted to community service hours.

Federal judges have rejected those ideas as inadequate for most poor felons, and they’ve suggested the Legislature come up with a simple way for poor felons to vote. Lawmakers said they won’t do that this year, choosing instead to let the litigation play out, which could take years.

He said he expects the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to weigh in on the issue, and he warned that the result could backfire on the litigants suing the state.

“I’m not sure the folks who are driving the litigation have really thought this through,” DeSantis said. “It may not work the way they think it will.”