Forget Congress: the most important result in the midterms was this Florida ballot initiative

Amendment 4 – which passed on Tuesday – gives more than a million people with former felony convictions back the right to vote.

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In Florida, while all eyes were on the closely-fought gubernatorial race between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis, liberal and conservative voters united to back a little-noticed ballot initiative called Amendment 4.

This was an amendment to the Florida constitution that called for the restoration of voting rights to former felons who have served their sentences, with the exception of those convicted of murder and sexual offenses.

Forget all the talk of “blue waves”. Forget the Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives. Forget Ted Cruz’s narrow re-election to the Senate. The biggest result of the US midterms? With the passage of Amendment 4, no fewer than one and a half million Americans won back their right to vote.

Mother Jones reporter Ari Berman, one of the leading experts on voter suppression in the US and the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, described it as “the largest enfranchisement of new voters” since the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It is, according to Berman, a “game changer for voting rights”.

Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, has the highest disenfranchisement rate in the United States and was one of only four US states which permanently disenfranchised citizens with past felony convictions.

Roughly eight per cent of the US population as a whole have past felony convictions; in Florida, it’s just under ten per cent, or just under one and a half million people. Got that? You serve your time, you pay your debt to society but you still couldn’t vote – for the rest of your life. For electoral purposes, you were a non-person.

As a result, as the Sentencing Project noted, “the state of Florida alone accounts for more than a quarter (27 percent) of the disenfranchised population nationally”.That population is disproportionately skewed along racial lines: more than one in five African-Americans in the Sunshine State were disenfranchised in this way.

Let’s be clear: this is racism, pure and simple. Felon disenfranchisement laws are a relic of the Jim Crow era, when a vast array of state and local laws enforced racial segregation across the South of the United States. Its inclusion in the Florida state constitution of 1868 had nothing to do with law and order, and everything to do with racial discrimination. Don’t take my word for it: the intent of the law, as then Republican state senator W.J. Purman bluntly declared, was to prevent Florida from becoming “niggerized”.

Voter suppression – whether in the Jim Crow era or the Trump era – has always been fuelled by racism. And these latest midterm elections, plagued by broken voting machines, long lines at polling stations and absurd voter ID laws, are yet another urgent reminder that American democracy is broken and in dire need of reform – as I explained in a recent essay for this magazine.

Republicans are bent on preventing people of colour, in particular, from exercising their democratic rights, and disenfranchising former felons is one instrument in a wider arsenal of voter suppression tools.

However, on Tuesday, the Republican Party in Florida couldn’t convince Republican voters. Like any other change to Florida’s Constitution, Amendment 4 needed 60 percent of the vote to become law. It got 65 per cent. “According to polls,” wrote Berman, “a majority of Republicans in Florida supported the initiative even as their party invested heavily in making it harder to vote nationwide.”

On one side of this divide, then, were partisan (and, yes, racist) politicians from the GOP. On the other, tireless grassroots activists ensured that they built a coalition from across the ideological spectrum, and who ended up garnering support from both the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.

“We are fighting just as hard for that person that wishes he could vote for Donald Trump as that person who wanted to vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton,” Desmond Meade, an ex-felon who heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told Berman in August. “We don’t care about how a person may vote. What we care about is that they have the ability to vote. That is our compass.”

These are noble words. The reality, however, is that many of these ex-felons, disproportionately poor and disproportionately black, will probably be voting for the Democratic presidential candidate come November 2020. Florida, with its 29 electoral college votes, has long been a swing state – remember November 2000? Bush vs Gore? Hanging chads? – but the introduction of 1.5 million new voters who lean Democratic could take it out of the “too close to call” column once and for all. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton Florida by around 100,000 votes; in 2000, George W Bush won the Sunshine State by a wafer-thin 537 votes.

“Because felons are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of racial minorities and the poor, disenfranchisement laws tend to take more votes from Democratic than from Republican candidates,” noted academics Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza in a 2002 study. For example, in the 2000 election, according to their research, “if only ex-felons had been enfranchised in Florida, they would have yielded an additional 60,000 net votes for Gore, more than enough to overwhelm Bush's narrow victory margin.”

Amendment 4, therefore, is not just a much-needed moral victory for anti-racists but a huge political victory for the Democrats.

The amendment, however, came too late for Andrew Gillum, the young, progressive Tallahassee mayor who came tantalisingly close to being elected the first Democratic governor of Florida for two decades – and the first African-American governor in the state’s history.

Gillum lost by the narrowest of margins – 1 per cent! – to Ron DeSantis, his Republican opponent. DeSantis is a mini-Trump; a former Fox News guest who has been tied to a range of white nationalists and who ran a TV ad in which he and his kids built a border wall out of toy bricks.

In 2022, however, DeSantis will struggle to be re-elected in Florida. In 2020, Trump will struggle to build a route back to the White House which goes through the Sunshine State. New voters, new rules. In the long run, Amendment 4 is a historic victory for the Democrats – and for democracy.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.