Amendment 4 – Florida’s historic voting rights win – is one example of movement building. Organizers say they’ll continue their work to ensure 1.4 million Floridians can register to vote and that their electoral voices will be heard on public policy.
Florida’s voting rights victory in November will be recorded in U.S. history as the largest expansion of electoral democracy in nearly half a century. But Amendment 4 – the movement to restore voting rights to Floridians convicted of felonies – did not end with the mere counting of ballots.
The amendment’s victory opens more doors for movement builders in Florida as to how they will work in the future, especially as they pursue justice and equity for families.
Organizers say outreach efforts will continue for the next several months to ensure 1.4 million U.S. citizens who have completed their sentences can register to vote in Florida. Previously, these “returning citizens” were banned for life from casting ballots in the Sunshine State – their electoral voices simply did not exist.
Amendment 4 backers also are thinking about how families affected by this ban succeeded in driving this nonpartisan voting-rights victory through the telling of their life stories and community organizing. The victory was years in the making. One focus for organizers now: Building upon that level of grassroots civic engagement for the future, which could include criminal-justice reform efforts.
“We organized around people and humanity,” says Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC). “…It makes sense to embrace those values in the next steps. That means we don’t do business as usual. We keep our humanity elevated above that.”
Meade, who is Black, and Neil Volz, FRRC political director and who is White, say relationship building and finding common ground will continue to be essential for organizing in the near future. Both ideas propelled Amendment 4 to victory with more than 64 percent of the ballots cast in November – or more than 5.1 million votes. “They weren’t votes based on fear or hate,” Meade says.
A diverse group of organizations came together to support the amendment: Rural and urban residents, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Christians, Muslims, Jews, other faith groups, supporters of President Donald Trump, farmworker families, immigrants, refugees, youth and the poor.
“We’ve been engaged in relationships for years,” Volz says. “This will build on those relationships.”
Valencia Gunder, a community organizer with The New Florida Majority in Miami and a network weaver with Equal Voice for Urban Florida, believes this movement to restore voting rights could continue to transform civic engagement and the overall landscape in the country’s third most populous state, which is home to more than 21 million people.
“It redefined what coalition means, seeing how many people we needed to have at the table to be successful,” she says. “It showed us that when we have a common goal, we can get past a lot of boundaries.”
Gunder adds: “It finally showed Florida about putting directly impacted and underserved people at the forefront and putting their needs as a priority.”
Equal Voice for Urban Florida is a network of family-led community organizations that are collaborating across various issues to effect positive policy changes from the ground up. The state is also home to Equal Voice for Rural Florida, another network of organizations. Its members contributed to the effort to restore voting rights to Floridians.
The role of a network weaver is to support member organizations in identifying issues of common concern, build upon working relationships and strengthen collective impact.
In Miami, for example, Equal Voice for Urban Florida network members have bases of support in various communities – Little Haiti, Liberty City and among immigrant families and Black and Brown youth, for example – that were affected by the voting rights ban, Gunder says. That helped strengthen the overall Amendment 4 outreach work because community relationships were in existence and people were aware of the issue.
“It is way more impactful to do things through a coalition,” Gunder says. “They have access to people who you might not have access to.”
Meade, Volz and Gunder give credit to political, business and philanthropic supporters. Financial support came in the form of an unrestricted general support grant from Marguerite Casey Foundation for nonpartisan voter and civic engagement efforts.
This type of grant, Meade says, gave FRRC the opportunity to open chapters throughout the state, such as in Miami, and hire returning citizens and other residents to do outreach work, including in communities of color.
“It’s important for grants to create an environment in which people can fail,” Meade says. “…A lot of times when you deal with organizations led by people of color, there is little room for error.”
“Unrestricted funding is vital to building relationships that are the heartbeat of the movement,” Volz says.
Community organizers might look at criminal justice and prison reform as issues to consider in the near future. Gunder believes Amendment 4 attracted large amounts of attention from Floridians for a simple reason.
“I think people just wanted a change. They just wanted to restore hope,” she says, adding that numerous families in the state continue to want progress in their communities.
“Just keep an eye on Florida,” she says. “As Desmond says, ‘If you want to flip a country, grab it by its handle.’”
Brad Wong is content editor for Equal Voice. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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