As the calendar turns to 2019, the most consequential new law (or, more precisely, amendment to a state constitution) approved by midterm voters now takes effect. It is a classic good news, bad news development in the always volatile state of Florida.
On one hand, the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons is a welcome development for liberty. After all, voting is the most basic civil right of all American citizens, and Florida was one of just three states that had denied voting rights to former felons who have paid their debt to society after being convicted and completing their sentences (the others are Iowa and Kentucky).
…the virtually inarguable assumption that most felons will vote for Democrats.
On the other hand, it seems certain to transform the politics of the most significant swing state in the country, whose 29 electoral votes have long been a must-win for Republicans seeking the presidency.
Of course, inherent in the universally accepted conclusion that the GOP will suffer under this new constitutional amendment is the virtually inarguable assumption that most felons will vote for Democrats. What exactly does this reveal about the Democratic Party? That is a subject for another day.
Amendment 4 will be limited to those convicted of non-violent offenses, and it will particularly affect the state’s black population. More than one in five blacks in Florida previously had been unable to vote due to a felony conviction.
The amendment was placed on the ballot after Federal District Court Judge Mark Walker, responding to a lawsuit from nine ex-felons, ruled that the state’s denial of voting rights to previously incarcerated individuals was unconstitutional. Advocates then succeeded in collecting enough signatures to place the proposed amendment on the November ballot, where 60% of Florida voters supported it.
There is still much confusion about whether the state legislature or individual counties are responsible for the passage of laws that provide statutory authority to this amendment. A lack of direction from the state has raised the possibility that various counties will interpret the amendment differently, which could trigger lawsuits on equal protection.
But once the dust settles, more than one million ex-felons living in Florida — estimates vary, from 1.2 million to 1.5 million — who were previously denied the right to vote will now be allowed to exercise their franchise.
We all remember the election of 2000 and the endless, nail-biting, stress-inducing Florida recounts, the infamous hanging chads and butterfly ballots. It took the Supreme Court to finally hand the presidency to George W. Bush by the thinnest possible margin in the electoral college, 271-269, on the basis of an almost inconceivably minuscule margin of 537 votes (out of more than 4.8 million cast) in the nation’s third-most-populous state.
Imagine if the law that kicked in on Jan. 1, 2019, had been in effect in 2000. It would have produced President Al Gore. And God only knows what federal government policy on climate change would be by now.
In fact, the new law might even have changed the outcome of the 2004 election, when Bush beat John Kerry in Florida by 381,000 votes. And though Florida did not prove decisive in 2016 after Donald Trump captured the White House on the strength of sweeping victories across the heartland, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the Sunshine State by just 113,000 votes.
Do the math. Even using the most conservative estimate on the number of ex-felons in the state, if 50% of these newly enfranchised voters actually vote, and 75% of them pull the lever for Democrats — both reasonable assumptions — it will result in a pickup of some 450,000 votes for the Democratic Party. That is a game-changer.
But it gets worse for Republicans. In the aftermath of the twin hurricanes of 2017 that devastated Puerto Rico, some 200,000 residents of that Democrat-dominated island migrated to Florida, providing another valuable cache of new Democratic voters.
And there is yet another x-factor: the ongoing tension and racially charged environment in Florida in the wake of close and contested races for governor and senator last November, both won by the GOP, and the scandal involving election officials in Democrat-dominated Broward and Dade counties.
Indeed, Florida is bound to become an even more heated battleground — if that is even possible — in the 2020 presidential election. And any way you cut it, GOP prospects in the nation’s most vital — and volatile — swing state have taken a serious hit.