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What Victory in Florida Means to Me

It’s been a long road. And so many people contributed. But I knew this day would come.

November 7, 2018

Last night, the coun­try’s single biggest expan­sion of the right to vote happened since the 26thAmend­ment to the U.S. Consti­tu­tion lowered the voting age to 18: Flor­ida voters passed Amend­ment 4, a change to the Flor­ida consti­tu­tion auto­mat­ic­ally restor­ing voting rights to 1.4 million Amer­ic­ans who have completed all the terms of their crim­inal sentence. I always tell my students that to be a social justice worker, you have to learn how to take a loss on the chin and walk into work the next day. I usually don’t need to tell people how to handle a win. Some kvell or snark on twit­ter. Some drink toasts. Me? I usually burst into meet­ings and run down the hall­ways with my arms in the air like a soccer player who just scored a goooooolllll.  But in the face of this trans­form­at­ive event, one that has been more than decades in the making, I don’t recog­nize myself. A congrat­u­lat­ory smile makes me tear­ful, and I seem to be walk­ing outside of my own body. I am not the controlled tech­ni­cian I am in a court room. Can extreme happi­ness make you deli­ri­ous? 

As I’m trying to get myself together for my team, my colleagues, and my clients, some under­stand­ing folks are telling me to cut myself a break for being emotional. This is not just an ordin­ary win, this is a big win. A BIIIIGGG win. It will bring into our demo­cracy more than a million Amer­ic­ans who have been shut out because of mistakes in their past. It stamps out a nakedly Jim Crow policy. It reaf­firms the Amer­ican commit­ment to being a land of second chances. And it demon­strates that when the right things come together, people from all walks of life and all polit­ical stripes can find common ground. 

In trying times (and in a world where mere days ago we saw a mass shoot­ing at a place of worship and public school teach­ers dress­ing up as a border wall, it is hard to dispute that these are trying times), I hold closely my faith that I know how all this ugli­ness ends: Justice wins. Love wins. The horrific and atro­cious ways we humans treat each other are hurt­ful, shame­ful, and ulti­mately, futile attempts to evade the unavoid­able triumph of good over evil. But one of the beau­ti­ful myster­ies of my faith is that even though the begin­ning and the ending of the human portion in the story of the universe is all set, we are all being used to write the middle. Human history has a complic­ated traject­ory.

And the Amend­ment 4 part of the middle of this human history, like all middles, has its own many begin­ning and ends. There was the 13th,14th, and 15th  Amend­ments and Recon­struc­tion. There was Jim Crow and racist consti­tu­tional conven­tions.  There were ping-ponging exec­ut­ive orders. There was an unin­ter­ested legis­lature. There was a lawsuit filed in 2000 that should have won but didn’t. In more recent times, there was an email list called the Flor­ida Rights Restor­a­tion Coali­tion, that trans­formed into a vibrant and effect­ive stand-alone organ­iz­a­tion. There were organ­izers and lawyers and academ­ics and funders and faith lead­ers and community folks. Some contrib­uted a piece and moved on. Some came in later with new ideas, connec­tions, and strategies. And, some, seem­ingly did noth­ing but Amend­ment 4 for the better part of five years, like the indom­it­able Desmond Meade, and Mila, Howard, and Pastor Rhonda. And there were the hundreds of thou­sands of Flor­idi­ans who went to the polls and used the vote that they have to restore voting rights to their neigh­bors and family members who didn’t. 

One of Desmond’s many big visions was that the amend­ment should go on the ballot in 2018. I was part of the crew that thought the math worked better for us in 2020. Desmond, I have never been so glad to be wrong. The campaign portion of Amend­ment 4 has ended, but it gives rise to other things that can now and must begin. 

We will move on to making sure it is imple­men­ted prop­erly, its impact is protec­ted against those who reject the prin­ciples of an inclus­ive demo­cracy, and that every person enfran­chised through it uses their hard-won right to vote. We also need to learn from what went really well and what could have gone better and use those lessons to get Kentucky and Iowa, the last of the two states with policies of perman­ent disen­fran­chise­ments for felony convic­tions more in line with the rest of the coun­try (and we can add Virginia to that list if some future governor decides to go back­wards).  

Congrats Desmond. Congrats FRRC. Congrats to all of the friends and colleagues and part­ners I’ve had the priv­ilege of work­ing with on this campaign and to those I didn’t, but I nonethe­less know were work­ing hard on it. Congrats Flor­ida. Congrats USA. Congrats demo­cracy. This is a big moment in the history of the coun­try.  While I knew this day would come, and I was sure I would see it, I still can’t really believe I’m living it now.

(Image: Joe Raedle/Getty)