A Quarter of Florida’s Black Citizens Can’t Vote. A New Referendum Could Change That.

Florida's Supreme Court will consider a proposed referendum on restoring the vote to the state's 1.5 million ex-felons.

BALTIMORE, MD-MAR 10: (left with fist in the air, wearing hat) Gerald Dent, who served 41 years in prison joined (center, with sign) James Featherstone (he served 35 years in prison) and (R) Niles Ringgold (Ringgold served 40 years in prison) at the rally for felon voting rights. They chanted, "We want to vote, we want to vote." Communities United and other rights groups rallied at the Baltimore City Board of Election today with several former felons and supporters to celebrate the first day of voter registration for people on probation or parole. More than 40,000 Marylanders are newly eligible to vote today, with more than half of those potential new voters living in Baltimore City. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images) Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

For more than a century, the state of Florida has presided over one of American history’s single most effective and enduring efforts to disenfranchise voters. By far the most populous of the three states that strip lifelong voting rights from people with felony convictions, Florida is home to some 1.5 million residents who can never again cast a ballot unless pardoned by the state’s governor, according to a calculation by The Sentencing Project.

Florida’s legions of disenfranchised voters are disproportionately Democrat-leaning minorities — including nearly a quarter of Florida’s black population — numbers that advocates say amount to a long-standing and often ignored civil rights catastrophe. This racial skew means that the state’s mass disenfranchisement could have changed the outcome of some particularly important elections — such as Bush v. Gore — and thus the direction of modern American history itself. Most recently, after the state’s Republican governor clamped down on the ability of ex-felons to have their rights restored, Donald Trump won the crucial swing state by a margin less than a tenth the size of the state’s disenfranchised population, leading some to question the effect that felony disenfranchisement may have had on the size of Trump’s Electoral College win.

In spite of the state’s eye-popping voting statistics, national groups, including the Democratic Party, have shown little interest in placing real resources behind recent efforts to roll back the country’s most impactful voting restriction.

Yet in recent weeks, even without any significant organizational backing, a coalition composed largely of disenfranchised Floridians quietly reached a new landmark in a long and laborious fight to overturn the state’s law. On Monday, after organizers had spent years gathering the requisite 68,314 petition signatures, Florida’s high court announced it had set a March date to consider the proposal to allow a referendum on the 2018 ballot asking voters to roll back the state’s felony voting restriction.

“To the best of my recollection, never before has a purely grassroots effort gotten as far as triggering a Supreme Court review,” said Desmond Meade, an ex-felon and the chairman of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the group leading the effort. “This is a major milestone.”

Meade says that he’s hopeful that the state’s high court will produce a favorable ruling, and he has yet another reason for optimism: even the Florida Division of Elections has reportedly filed a brief supporting the proposed ballot initiative.

Yet even if the court ruling goes Meade’s way, his effort still faces an uphill battle. The court’s approval clears the way for the coalition to move to the final phase of the campaign, which involves collecting some 600,000 additional petition signatures — roughly 10 times the amount that it took his group years to secure. To succeed, Meade will somehow have to rapidly and dramatically expand interest in an issue that appears to have been written off by both major political parties, even though it holds the potential to reshape American elections.

“We weren’t getting funding or anything so it took more time,” said Meade. “But we’ll need 10 times as many people now.”

Top photo: Gerald Dent, left,  joined James Featherstone, center, and Niles Ringgold, right, at the rally for felon voting rights. All three men spent at least 35 years in prison.

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