Column: Don't let politicians stop Amendment 4's clear intent

Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, faces a crowd of people with former felony convictions during a rally on the steps of the historic old Capitol in Tallahassee on March 12. The group was chanting, “our voice, our vote.” [Emily L. Mahoney | Times]
Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, faces a crowd of people with former felony convictions during a rally on the steps of the historic old Capitol in Tallahassee on March 12. The group was chanting, “our voice, our vote.” [Emily L. Mahoney | Times]
Published Mar. 19, 2019

When Amendment 4 passed with nearly 65 percent of the vote in Florida, it was a victory of people over politics. For decades, politicians promised to fix Florida's broken felon disenfranchisement system. But partisan bickering left millions of Florida families struggling to navigate a broken system. The people responded to these challenges by putting Amendment 4 on the ballot and passing it with majority support in every Senate and House district across the state.

Since then, we have seen the opening chapter of the largest expansion of American democracy in 50 years. In every county of Florida, people from all walks of life and political backgrounds have registered to vote.

Unfortunately, this progress appears to be in jeopardy. Politicians in Tallahassee are formulating legislation that could potentially thwart the will of Florida's voters, infringe on our Constitution and deny people the ability to be full participants in their own communities. For the millions of us who are impacted by Amendment 4, we will fight any measure that denies people their constitutional rights. We will do that now, we will do that in 2020, and we will do that beyond.

Few know how sacred the vote is like those of us who have lost it and fought to get it back. Because we know how disempowering it is to not have a voice in our community and how sacred getting that voice back is, we will fight against any politician who seeks to diminish or disregard the voice of voters.

In upcoming weeks, debates will begin about "protecting the system" and the legal definition of words. Inevitably, these conversations will occur through the prism of partisanship and short-term political advantage, namely the same forces that for decades held back the very changes Amendment 4 implemented. We will see politicians purport to engage in these conversations under the guise of trying to determine what the voters really wanted when they voted "yes" on Amendment 4. This will happen despite the fact that part of the constitutional initiative process included a review and unanimous support of Amendment 4's language by the Florida Supreme Court, which meant it was in line with the many standards required to ensure that the language was clear and not confusing to voters.

We believe that when partisan politics and short-term advantage take over a debate, it is inevitably the people, all the people, who end up losing. For instance, Florida already has a standard in place for determining a person's completion of sentence, as it relates to their ability to vote. This standard has been used for years, under both Democrat and Republican administrations, and is still being used today. Why change it now? Especially if that change results in fewer people being able to vote?

Inserting partisanship into the implementation process of Amendment 4 is dangerous for many reasons. Politicians picking their voters is wrong and offensive to the people who elect them, and, at the same time, a desire many politicians find hard to avoid. Left unchecked, a partisan approach to this debate will infect the entire session and soon see us stop talking about Amendment 4's celebration of democracy, and instead result in focusing on the demonization of individual people with past convictions. Likewise, many of us have often heard politicians bemoan judges who "legislate from the bench," yet somehow now we see some of those same leaders suggesting that it is the proper role of the Legislature to "interpret the constitution." The reason Floridians from all walks of life worked together to collect more than 1 million signatures to get Amendment 4 on the ballot was because partisanship blocked our state lawmakers from doing what was right.

We believe the people deserve better than partisan legislation determining who can vote in our state. That is why we are encouraging our elected leaders to reconsider their decision to introduce Amendment 4 legislation. In our opinion, a better approach would be to simply follow the Constitution, let the departments who administer elections do their job, let the courts interpret the language and focus the legislative process on making sure that newly eligible voters are empowered to live up to their potential as fully engaged citizens of our state.

More than 5.1 million voters and 1.4 million newly enfranchised returning citizens will not appreciate politicians undermining the will of Floridians.

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Desmond Meade is the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and Neil Volz is the political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.