This week, as many as 1.4 million Floridians became eligible for full citizenship again — thanks to millions of their neighbors who voted overwhelmingly in November to restore ballot access to people with felony convictions who have served their time.
It was restorative justice far too long in the making.
After the Civil War, Florida — like many other states in the South — barred anyone with a criminal conviction from voting. Aimed at denying freed slaves full participation in democracy, the policy affected every election in Florida from Reconstruction through 2018, when races for governor and the Senate were so close that they required recounts.
Credit for the largest enfranchisement since women’s suffrage a century ago goes to a determined advocacy campaign, which built enough support that Amendment 4 easily cleared the 60 percent threshold needed for ratification. It went into effect on Tuesday and extended this basic right to Floridians convicted of all felonies except for murder and aggravated sexual offenses.
The sight of so many Americans eagerly registering to vote was a rare bright spot in a nation where the right to representative government is under strain from onerous ID laws and computerized gerrymandering.
Key to the success of the Florida effort was a message from activists that resonated beyond party politics and above racial resentment. Some experts say that the expansion of voting rights will help Democrats, but one of the leaders of the campaign to restore rights, Neil Volz, was a former Republican lobbyist. And while one out of five black Floridians was kept from the polls by past convictions, nearly 70 percent of those convicted of felonies in the state are not African-American, according to activists.
Over the past two decades, numerous states have scrapped laws — many passed with explicitly racist intentions — that kept citizens with criminal records from the polls. But Florida remained a stubborn holdout. Meanwhile, the number of formerly incarcerated citizens there swelled larger than the population of 11 states. That so many Americans were denied participation in representative government for so long was a stain on our democracy.
Kentucky and Iowa are now the only states where lifetime disenfranchisement laws remain on the books. In 33 states, various groups of people on probation or parole can be denied the right to vote. Only two states — Vermont and Maine — rightly impose no voting restriction based on past convictions.
It is the sanctity of the right to vote itself that helps explain the passion, and tinges of sadness, in the stories coming out of Florida.
“I feel like I am a United States citizen,” Jerry Armstrong told The Times. Mr. Armstrong was registering to vote for the first time at age 45 due to past convictions.
For 150 years, Florida’s democracy was deeply distorted — even as America, also 150 years ago, was born anew and began to make strides toward equality with the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. So it was heartening to see millions of people take to the polls, repudiate a law with racist roots and give back their neighbors their full citizenship.
For more on voting in Florida:
This video, originally published in October, examined disenfranchisement in the state.